General Health

Control Helps Parents but Hurts Children

Every parent only wants what’s best for their child. But sometimes overprotecting them can be just as dangerous as doing nothing.

There’s been a lot of talk lately of helicopter parenting. Countless editorials have already documented the more extreme cases of children unable to cope with the real world or college graduates who bring their parents along to job interviews. Until recently, there had been very few scientific studies of this phenomenon, and the science shows that the damage caused by controlling parenting can be deep.

Control usually starts when children are young and need guidance and protection. Parental control tends to falls into two categories, explored in a recent study: behavioral control and psychological control. Behavioral control is healthy and involves parents and children working together to regulate behavior, set limits, and establish rules. Psychological control is more negative and involves parents manipulating their children and creating feelings of guilt and rejection.

A mother tries to do daughter's work for her

Kids generally understand and respect behavioral control—which is better for their development—and they view psychological control negatively. However, when parents abuse this control and becoming highly controlling, youth respond negatively to both forms of control. This is because high levels of control feel intrusive. And being intrusive is a staple of psychological control which makes individuals feel as if they don’t matter.

This feeling of being unimportant or not a real person gets at the true harm caused by being overprotective. As children feel that they don’t matter, they become less confident and less able to handle the real world. Often, parents think only of protecting their children when they set rules or try to control their child’s life, but unless this process involves two-way dialogue, they can do more harm than good.

In some cases, parents may feel as if they need to be authoritative and control their children, lest they misbehave or endanger themselves. But this method can quickly backfire. A 2012 study found that parents who ruled with an iron fist often ended up with more unruly and disrespectful children when compared to parents who listened to their children and gained their respect and trust. When parents are highly demanding and controlling, but unaware of their children’s needs and opinions, children tend to become discontent and distrustful.

On the other side of the same coin we find parents who are overwhelmingly involved with their children’s lives, constantly looking at their needs and trying to help them. When this behavior carries into college, it can be embarrassing and hindering, but many parents dismiss these concerns, thinking their behavior is justifiable and well worth the peace-of-mind it provides them. But a study from earlier this year found that parental involvement can have a damaging effect on young adults.

College students with helicopter parents tend to have higher levels of depression and anxiety. They may also feel less competent, less autonomous, and overall less able to manage life. In most helicopter parents, this style of parenting has been carried over from when their children were actually kids. While most parents let their parenting style evolve as their children grow older, helicopter parents do not adjust their involvement and control. Although parents may view their behavior as being supportive, their children tend to view it as controlling and undermining

It seems the best parenting styles are those that find a balance between being too controlling and too permissive. By being receptive and warm to their children’s needs while also establishing rules and boundaries, parents can help their children understand why they’ve established such rules and also listen to their children’s opinions. The end result is a child who is self-controlled, self-reliant, and content.