5 Signs of Overparenting

college freshman
Millennial parents can have a hard time letting go of their kids.
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Beginning in the first decade of the 2000s, college deans and admissions counselors noticed a new student stereotype on campus. Profoundly attached to their parents and terrified of academic failure, these nicknamed "teacups" and "crispies" had a tough time functioning without moms or dads coaching them every step of the way [source: Gibbs]. Some parents had become so integrally intertwined in their children's transition to college life -- in some cases even selecting alma maters and majors on their offspring's behalf -- that the University of Vermont started training "parent bouncers" to rein in overly involved moms and dads during student orientation in the summer of 2005 [source: Reidel]. The first generation of overparented Millennials had grown up -- but hadn't outgrown their parents' constant hovering and well-intentioned micromanagement.

Overparenting, also known as snowplow, helicopter and hothouse parenting, took off in the 1990s and manifested as a combination of excessive anxiety, unrealistic achievement goals and old fashioned spoiling [source: Acocella]. These hyperprotective parents hired language tutors for toddlers, rushed onto soccer fields at the sight of skinned knees, and shuffled around packed calendars of play dates and enrichment outings. But as more helicopter-parented kids came of age, teachers and child development researchers noticed that all of that parental bubble wrapping had adverse effects. Ironically, with moms and dads excessively safeguarding boys and girls for success, kids weren't developing the psychological resilience and creativity to weather the inevitable pitfalls and logjams on the road to adulthood.


Although the overparenting trend climaxed in about 2009, as media outlets began publishing stories on its potential perils, vestiges remain [source: Gibbs]. Recession-sapped family budgets may not leave room for luxuries such as college application coaches anymore, but there are still many signs of overparenting in the carpool lane. Consider, for instance, the following five red flags that parents may need to take a step -- or two -- back from their children's lives.

Red Flag No. 5: Watch-dogged Kids

dad on cell phone
Helicopter parents, step away from the cell phones.
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Modern-day overparenting probably wouldn't exist to such an extreme extent if cell phone technology wasn't around. Thanks to mobile devices, moms and dads can keep in constant contact with their children, and that's not necessarily a good thing. In 2010, Taser, the company known for stun guns, advertised software enabling parents to intercept phone calls, text messages and e-mails kids receive on personal cell phones [source: Magid]. Helicopter parents can also opt for GPS-outfitted cell phones that give them real-time information on their tweens' and teens' whereabouts. And just to be on the even safer side, parents can download a host of apps that facilitate mobile video monitoring if the kids are home alone, as well as an FBI-developed app that can instantly provide authorities with up-to-date ID information and photos should children go missing [source: Singer].

Child psychologists warn, however, that electronically keeping tabs on kids can quickly backfire [source: Rauh]. Excessive monitoring can foster feelings of hostility toward parents who don't trust their children to stay out of trouble. Statistically, kids also are safer on the streets and in schools than ever before, which means that in reality, parents should be breathing a sigh of relief rather than putting their sons and daughters on electronic leashes [source: Gillespie].


Red Flag No. 4: Extra Extracurriculars

ballet student piano lesson
Free time is just as important as piano or ballet lessons for healthy child development.
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A fast way to determine whether children are being overparented is to look at their weekly schedules. If afternoons and evenings are packed like sardine cans with sports practices, play rehearsals, language lessons and play dates -- making a kid as in-demand as a corporate executive -- there's a good chance that a hovering helicopter parent is to blame.

Partly due to that trend, family psychologists fear that somewhere in the past 25 years, the value of free time in childhood has been forgotten. A commonly cited study from the University of Maryland, for instance, calculated a 25 percent drop in kids' free play from 1981 to 1997, while homework time escalated 145 percent [source: Ozment]. But all the hours and money spent honing artistic, athletic and academic skills can actually tamp down on children's creativity, since they aren't left with any spare moments to read, draw or imagine on their own [source: Tartakovsky]. By overscheduling children's lives, parents inadvertently prohibit them from developing the creative skill sets that foster problem-solving, resiliency and self-confidence down the road.


Red Flag No. 3: Piling on the Praise

trophy shelf
Kids don't need awards for everything they do.
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It's good to encourage a child to do his or her best, right? Right.

And even when boys and girls get stumped on spelling quizzes or snubbed in science fairs, parents should go ahead and praise them for their efforts and declare that, no matter their grades or scores, they're whip-smart and exceptional, right? Wrong.


The 1969 publication "The Psychology of Self-Esteem" kicked off an overparenting tendency to excessively -- and unnecessarily -- boost children's self-esteem [source: Bronson]. Kids on losing sports teams receive "participation trophies," and young students who bring home lackluster grades are simply told they'll do better next time. But that sort of empty praise has been shown to breed poor performance and unhealthy personality traits in children as they age. For example, a landmark 2007 study from Columbia University found that kids continually told they're smart tend to avoid activities where they don't excel, essentially selling themselves short for fear of failure [source: Bronson]. Such self-esteem coddling also may explain record high rates of narcissism among today's young adults [source: Gottleib]. What has been shown to breed successful, satisfied kids in the long term? Learning how to fail and bravely move forward.

Red Flag No. 2: Parental Temper Tantrums

nervous child at school
Children need to learn conflict resolution skills.
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Overparenting often comes from a sincere desire to provide the best for children. Yet that urge can fester into intra-parental competition, as well anger and hostility at the merest hint of a child being harmed in any way. In 2012, organizers of an annual Colorado Easter egg hunt cancelled the event because so many parents jumped the starting gun and wrestled for the coveted plastic eggs [source: Associated Press]. More aggressive overparenting outbursts are no longer confined to mom-said, dad-said anecdotes passed along in PTA meetings, either. Facebook status updates and comments publicly reveal the rantings of mothers and fathers incensed at teachers, coaches and other kids, sometimes even threatening bodily harm to those who toss a rock into the spokes of their sons' and daughters' metaphorical bicycles [source: STFU Parents]. When parents find themselves literally fighting on behalf children -- with principals, nannies, coaches, friends -- they may have crossed the line from helicopter to (not so) stealth bomber.

Experts say parents should also allow their kids to resolve peer conflicts and not immediately intervene to diffuse situations. Child psychologists often advocate allowing boys and girls to learn how to work out differences with siblings and friends on their own, instead of constantly relying on parental mediators [source: Ozment]. That way, adolescents can learn how to problem-solve on their own. On athletic fields and in classrooms, parents should choose their battles wisely as well. Not making the grade or scoring the winning point are valuable lessons for kids as well, whereas witnessing a parent screaming at a teacher or coach only undermines that adult's authority. While it's understandable that parents don't relish seeing their children in disagreements or disappointed, it also isn't their job to serve as defense attorneys on kids' behalf.


Red Flag No. 1: Stubborn Boomerang Children

adult child
Helicopter kids may age into boomerang children.
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By 2010, the economic recession had clipped many grown kids' wings, with high unemployment rates fiscally blocking them from flying the coop for good. That year, a staggering 85 percent of American college graduates planned to head back home for a while, up from 67 percent in 2006, according to one survey [source: Dickler]. Adult children living at home is a more common tradition in European nations, but the rise had been especially stark in the recession-era United States, where leaving home is considered a young adulthood rite of passage. Nevertheless, parents didn't seem to mind their kids camping out for a while [source: Newman]. And while economic turbulence may be responsible initially for directing kids back to the nest, overparenting adult children could delay their exit and provoke arrested development.

Certainly, moving home represents a financial safety net for the 3.4 million so-called "boomerang children" in the U.S. The question of whether overparenting is to blame arises when adult children stick around the homestead for extended stays. Experts disagree on whether the boomerang trend is a good thing, but statistics imply a generational uptick in parental dependence over the long haul [source: Newman]. In 2011, a public opinion poll found that 50 percent of 46- to 56-year-old moms financially assisted their adult children, whereas 85 percent of those moms had established financial independence for themselves by 25 years of age [source: Liston].


Author's Note: 5 Signs of Overparenting

Although I'm not a parent myself, investigating overparenting signs and trends was nevertheless fascinating because it allowed me to reflect on my own upbringing and habits of parents around me. As the youngest of five children, I wasn't necessarily coddled, but I probably received more hovering than my older siblings, simply by virtue of birth order. Also, in a bustling house full of five kids, it was almost impossible for our parents to not allow us to figure out how to resolve conflict and entertain ourselves. And as the last one out of the house, I benefited from a few years of my parents' undivided attention at home, which was certainly formative in my high school experience. Thankfully, I exited that period of borderline overparenting unscathed and am grateful for both the freedoms and boundaries my parents established.

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