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Overbearing parents can harm toddlers’ capacities to manage their feelings and actions, opening pathways to later difficulties with school and friends.
Do you quickly tidy up the toys, not letting your toddler attempt to clean up after playing? Do you intervene immediately if your two-year-old squabbles with another child, whisking him away before he can resolve the dispute on his own? Is she often chastised when she eats messily? Perhaps you always help him get dressed because he’s too slow getting it done himself? Do you feel like life with your toddler is a never-ending power struggle?
These behaviours could be signs of overbearing parenting: being too strict or demanding considering your child’s developmental stage and behaviour. Every mom and dad is guilty at some point of jumping in too fast, pre-empting children who would otherwise try for themselves. But parenting of young children that’s consistently overbearing and controlling is associated with troubling and potentially long-lasting impacts on children’s ability to develop important skills.
That’s what we found in our study of over 400 children and their mothers in the United States, conducted at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro by Nicole Perry, Jessica Dollar, Susan Calkins, Susan Keane, and myself.
Overbearing parents can harm children’s self-regulation
Overbearing and smothering care, though often well-intentioned, can prevent children from facing developmentally appropriate challenges and learning how to resolve them effectively. By shutting the child out of solving problems, overbearing parents can actually deprive children of valuable “teachable moments”.
“Children of overbearing parents were more likely to have difficulties managing their emotions and behaviours at age 5. At age 10, they were more likely to have emotional and school problems, and to have fewer social skills.”
In such moments, children can practice strategies to deal with frustrating situations or learn to distract themselves from impulses to behave inappropriately. Parents can also use these moments to teach children strategies for dealing with challenging situations.
In our study, children of overbearing parents were more likely to have difficulties with managing their emotions and behaviours (called “self-regulation”) at age five, right before they entered school.
But the potential impact of too much parental control didn’t end there. We saw the children again at age 10, on the brink of adolescence. Ten-year-old children of overbearing parents were more likely to have developed emotional and school problems, and to have fewer social skills. This finding reflects a cascade of processes that may ensue from overbearing parenting.
Overbearing parents can produce long-term problems
For example, a disruptive child, who because of overbearing parenting is not good at dealing with frustration or controlling impulses, might struggle to learn at school. Indeed, children with poor self-regulatory skills are often difficult to manage in classrooms. In response, some teachers might become overly strict and controlling. Children who have trouble self-regulating may also find it harder to make friends because other children don’t want to play with someone who can’t manage their impulses or frustrations.
Children inevitably encounter difficulty in their lives, especially as they approach increasingly complex school environments. A key message from our research is that part of a parent’s job is to give children the time and space they need to tackle challenges and complexities, the opposite of overbearing parenting. Parents must also support children appropriately so that they build the necessary problem-solving and coping skills along the way. To do so, adults need empathy and a capacity to tune in to their children’s needs.
Possible barriers to tuning in to your child
Tuning in well to a child can be difficult if, for example, parents are stressed or suffer from depression, anxiety or substance use disorders. These conditions can impair social relationships and the ability to be fully in the moment with someone else.
Working parents may have limited time to compare notes with other moms and dads. They may struggle to turn off work stress if they are expected to check their messages after work hours. Parents who stay home sometimes get overwhelmed by domestic duties or feel isolated.
“Parents must have the patience to let young children try to solve problems on their own terms and, if needed, to guide and support them in learning strategies that they can then use the next time.”
Any of these things can easily lead to overbearing parenting. Such challenges can impair parents’ abilities to recognize and appropriately respond to their children’s feelings and needs and to allow them to explore complex situations on their own terms. Policy makers can help by promoting parental mental health, teaching parents skills that they can use to foster the development of their children’s self-regulation, and creating situations that give parents the opportunity to tune in to their children fully.
Parents naturally want to keep their children safe from harm. But they must also have the patience to avoid overbearing parenting and let young children try to solve problems on their own terms and, if needed, to guide and support them in learning strategies that they can use when they face one of life’s many speed-bumps.
Perry NB, Dollar JM, Calkins SD, Keane SP & Shanahan L (2018), Childhood self-regulation as a mechanism through which early overcontrolling parenting is associated with adjustment in preadolescence, Developmental Psychology, 54.8