The dangers of overparenting and how to stop it

Children who are encouraged to engage in safe risk-taking are less likely to struggle with anxiety disorders, says expert

Parenting comes with a mixed bag of emotions, with every stage of child-rearing bringing with it varying frustrations and feelings. It’s not always possible to pre-empt how we will navigate the potholed road of juggling our emotions and those of our children.

I for one, did not know that the natural anxiety of life would grow into intense postpartum anxiety as I parented a preschooler and newborn. Or that being an anxious parent would become part and parcel of those formative years. While I hold some level of balance on the anxiety that has lessened but not fully shifted, I have spent more time than I’d care to acknowledge nervously questioning how my anxious behaviour has affected, if at all, my growing kids who are now eight and five years old.

It’s only recently that I have noticed how I have loosened the reigns ever so slightly and overparent a little less than what became my normal.

Overparenting, which has the alternative moniker of helicopter parenting, essentially refers to the micro-managing of our children’s lives. It centres on being overprotective, controlling and hypervigilant. Traits that are also characteristic of anxious people who are overly cautious of the dangers life inevitably presents. Navigating our overparenting, controlling behaviour as an anxious individual is a tricky road to steer.


“We know that an anxious brain is often an overprotective brain,” says Dr Mary O’Kane, lecturer in psychology and early childhood and author of Perfectly Imperfect Parenting. “So, it is only understandable that a parent struggling with anxiety themselves will parent in a more anxious way. We know that overparenting is bad for children’s development, but an anxious parent is often torn between this knowledge and the pressure from society to seek perfection, which in fact increases anxiety.”

Our anxious behaviour is the perfect storm that whips around our children in a flurry of intrusion, restrictive autonomy and obstructing independence. These overprotective behaviours appear to correlate with mental health concerns in childhood and adolescence.

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Anxious parents are vulnerable to overparenting as strong environmental factors intrude on our ability to parent. “Most parents today would admit that they feel under pressure at times to seek perfection in our parenting,” says Dr O’Kane. “If I live perfectly, and parent perfectly, my children will be perfect. But this is completely unrealistic and can make us very controlling in our parenting. But naturally anxious parents can find this pressure from society even more difficult to deal with. This might result in a tendency to shield children from any possible harm and avoid all possible risk.”

And yet, Dr O’Kane advises that research looking at parental behaviour has found that parents who encourage children to explore new situations with confidence, engage in rough-and-tumble play and push boundaries are a buffer against anxiety. “Children who are encouraged to engage in safe risk-taking are less likely to struggle with anxiety disorders,” she says. “This research reminds us how important it is for parents to encourage children to push their limits.”

Our anxious overparenting directly impacts how our children view and interact with the world around them. “Risk-taking is a fundamental part of how we build confidence, resilience and self-belief,” says Dr O’Kane. “When our children are anxious, they look to us for reassurance. If they see us looking anxious too, it confirms for them that the world is indeed not a safe place. It confirms they are right to be scared. Instead, we can try to be a calm presence in their lives. We may not be able to control the world, but we can control our responses. That is where our power lies. Their biggest influence is their connection to us. We can let them know we are their port in a storm. We cannot promise they will never face challenging situations, but we can let them see our faith in their ability to cope.”

The urge to fix a situation, right a wrong done to our child, navigate their hardships for them, is a strong parental tendency. Most of us know when we are overstepping the mark in allowing our children to navigate and learn from the curveballs life throws at them. But as Dr O’Kane says, “Often the first thing our children will ask us to do when they are feeling anxious is to remove stressors. When you are struggling with overparenting, it is tempting to jump into that role, and plough ahead, and try to protect our children from any situations that might be anxiety provoking. Instead, we need to support our children to function as well as they can, even when they are feeling anxious. Every time they push through their anxiety, this helps them to build confidence in the world and strengthens the connections in the brain that supports this brave behaviour.”

Dr O’Kane suggests several ways anxious parents can add to their parental anxiety toolkit and reduce their tendency to control and overprotect their children.

“Encourage healthy risk-taking,” she says. “If we don’t gently push our children struggling with anxiety outside their comfort zones, avoidance becomes their go-to response to anxiety. There is a very real danger that the child will shrink away from the world and retreat to the safety of the home. Encouraging our children to step outside their comfort zones, to challenge themselves to try new experiences, and to take healthy risks in low-stakes situations, can help them to find their inner bravery.”

Dr O’Kane also suggests as parents we model good coping skills. “Managing your own anxiety, maybe by using controlled breathing or daily mindfulness techniques,” she says, “can help reduce anxiety in the home. Identifying your own triggers and planning how to respond to them can help. Once you have a better understanding of how to support your own anxiety, then you can move on to talk to your child about these coping skills.”

Helping our children find their inner brave is a useful tool in our anxiety toolkit also. “Anxiety and bravery are inextricably linked,” says Dr O’Kane, “but often the anxious child forgets that. Our children who struggle with anxiety need to be reminded of the strength they have internally. We cannot tell them that life is always safe, but we can tell them that when they are trying to find their inner brave, we will be there with them, supporting them.”

Finally, Dr O’Kane’s advice lies on the very important dogma of focusing on connection instead of looking for perfection. “Instead of putting pressure on ourselves to be the perfect parent, let’s accept that doing our best is good enough,” she says. “We are the most effective tool we have to support our anxious children. We don’t need to have all the answers, and we don’t need to always get it right, instead we can try to maintain a calm presence in their lives. Remember, as a parent who understands what it is like to struggle with anxiety, you can empathise with your child on a level that someone without this experience cannot.”

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family