Photo by: iStock

Help! Am I An Overprotective Parent?

by Kathryn Walsh of "Mamapedia"
Photo by: iStock

If a quick glance at the headlines is enough to make you Google “protective bubbles for kids,” you’re in good company. It’s a big, scary world out there, and you’re probably worried about everything from terrorism to chemicals in your child’s lunch box. Good parents all worry about keeping their kids safe. But where’s the line between protective and stifling, and how do you know if you’re crossing it? We talked to Dr. Angela Johnson, a mother of two boys and a psychologist who also cohosts the psychology podcast “Chasing the Mind,” about how parents can answer those questions for themselves.

Questions to Ask Yourself
Dr. Johnson says there are two key questions overprotective parents should ask themselves: Is my child wanting to do something that is appropriate for his age? And will not letting him do a particular activity impede his development?

On a case-by-case basis, answering those questions should help you figure out whether or not to let your child do something. Say your 8-year-old wants to ride his bike down a busy street with his friends. While being allowed to do that may help him develop independence, at 8 he may not have the judgment and coordination to know how to maneuver himself down the street safely. You’re being reasonable by saying no.

But if your child wants to do something age-appropriate and developmentally normal, you may want to give your permission even if it makes you nervous.

“While it might feel uncomfortable to let your small child move freely on a play structure without you standing underneath her, if she has the physical strength, ability, and coordination needed to climb then that is what she should be doing,” Dr. Johnson says. “By not allowing her to play in this way, parents may undermine their child’s confidence in her ability to trust her own abilities.”

You’re going to use some common sense to make some calls about whether an activity is appropriate for your child. It may also be helpful to touch base with your friends who have kids around your child’s age. Asking “Hey, are you letting your kids cut their own meat/walk to the park alone/go on dates?” gives you a point of comparison.

Protecting Your Kids Without Smothering Them
Your Googling has probably revealed that the protective bubble isn’t a feasible option for keeping your kids safe. That’s okay, because there’s a better alternative: Give your kids a solid safety net so they’re empowered to develop their independence without putting themselves in danger.

There are a few components to this. When you’re nervous about something your child wants to do, explain the risks (in broad, age-appropriate terms) so she knows how to keep herself safe—or so she understands why you’re saying no. Let her take small risks, like ordering a meal you think she won’t like, so you can save your “no means no” capital for bigger issues. And instead of micromanaging her behavior, set her up for success by removing threats when you can. For example, rather than forbidding your grade schooler to try some simple cooking, help her choose a recipe that doesn’t require sharp knives. Observe from a distance but don’t interfere unless she’s at risk of hurting herself.

And be willing to reexamine your rules as your child grows up. Your no-biking-alone stance may be a good one when she’s 8, but she may be ready to start taking shorter solo rides when she’s 9. Loosening the reins is a necessary part of helping your kids grow into competent, confident people. “As parents we need to communicate to our children that we have confidence in them to master increasingly complex situations,” Dr. Johnson says.

Above all, she advises, give yourself permission to get it wrong sometimes. “Parenting is hard. Our instincts are to protect our children at all costs. But we must also be willing to let our children develop into independent beings. Finding balance between being a good enough parent and too much of a good parent is an ongoing challenge.”

Kathryn Walsh is a freelance writer specializing in parenting and travel topics. Her work has appeared on,, and

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