Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Are You an Over-Protective Mom?

I'm starting to think I might be an over-protective mom. I became aware of it for the first time last month when we went to a birthday party at a kids’ gym where the kids and parents were separated by a waist-high wall. During the party, I was very aware of my discomfort with this setup, and I was bothered by how much I was bothered. Since then I've been highly aware of my desire to continue the coddling and hand-holding hallmarks of the infant and toddler years. 

I don’t like admitting this. It’s a little painful and slightly embarrassing. I’m a rescuer – and not in a heroic way but in a “Back off, Mom!” kind of way. I swoop in to head off moments of frustration or disappointment. I do things for my kids that they should be able to do themselves, and my worry of “what might happen” clouds my ability to enjoy watching them do anything that carries even the smallest risk.

This is exactly the situation I always wanted to avoid - I always feared that my controlling ways and worry-wart tendencies would stifle my children. In the absence of self-awareness and conscious effort, I know I could easily become an over-bearing, over-controlling, and under-empowering force in their lives.

As much as I’m bothered by this, I take comfort in two things. One, I’m now aware of it, which is an essential component of change. And two, I know I’m not the only mom whose good intentions to protect and rescue sometimes get out of control. But as much as it comes from a place of genuine love, that doesn’t make it less problematic. Most of us are guilty of over-involvement from time to time, but when the mama bear remains in check and breaches in boundaries are acknowledged, permanent ramifications are unlikely.

If you’re anything like me, it might take a little more effort to keep those tendencies in line, but fortunately, having those tendencies isn’t the problem. It’s failing to recognize and rein them in that causes issues. Recognition and self-awareness are the first steps toward change, so take a moment to test yourself on these common habits:

Rescuer: These moms find it unbearable to watch their children experience negative emotions (frustration, disappointment, sadness, etc.) They are quick to solve their children’s problems and assist them with simple tasks. They can become lax in their discipline style because they can't bear the tears that go along with enforcing rules and setting limits. Rescuers’ tendencies usually stem from their inability to withstand the negative emotions (i.e. helplessness, sympathy, etc.) brewing in their own psyches as they watch their children navigate the bumpy road through life’s necessary challenges. The adult children of chronic rescuers tend to underestimate their abilities and have poor problem-solving skills.

Hoverer: These moms do everything in their power to eliminate risk of physical harm or illness. Yes, it is our job to protect our children from life’s hazards, but hoverers take it to an extreme. They often resemble rescuers, but the motivation is different. Hoverers can withstand their children’s frustration while learning to tie their shoes but not the physical pain of a scraped knee. Hoverers’ tendencies usually stem from a desire to prevent the feelings of guilt that come with seeing their children with an injury or illness that might have been prevented had they been more diligent and protective. The adult children of chronic hoverers tend to view the world as a dangerous place and to shy away from trying new things.

If either of these behaviors resonated with you, fear not. Instead, be proud of your ability to recognize and label them. Greater awareness leads to faster change. If you're a rescuer, lean into the discomfort that comes with watching your child struggle while mastering a new skill and dismiss the urges to provide unnecessary help. If you're a hoverer, lean into the uneasiness that comes from not wiping every public surface they touch and dismiss the guilt demons that tell you every injury is your fault.

Most importantly, always practice self-compassion and patience when you find that you've stumbled into an over-protective pattern. Remember that these behaviors stem from a place of deep, genuine love. The intent of over-involved parents is never to harm their children. Instead, they aim to help, support, and protect. Unfortunately, in their extreme forms, these habits can have lasting effects. Over-protective parents not only run the risk of instilling fears in the hearts of their children, but they risk missing out on watching their children become their truest selves and fulfill their highest potential.

Over the weekend, I experienced a profound moment that perfectly illustrates the plight of the over-protective parent and the importance of developing the awareness and willingness necessary to enact change...    

Reese got a kite for her birthday and all week she begged me to fly it, but our property is thick with trees so instead I promised her we would take with us to my mom’s house for Memorial Day weekend. We pulled into the driveway and she couldn’t wait to get it out. I showed her how to get it started, and waited for her squeals of joy as it began to take flight. The kite was less than 10 feet above my head when she started yelling.

“Stop, Mommy, stop! Take it down!”

“Why? What’s the matter?”

“I’m afraid it’s gonna fall.”

“Well, if it falls to the ground we’ll just start again.”

“But it might blow away or get broken.”

I wanted to promise that it wouldn’t get lost or broken or stuck in a tree, but I couldn’t because all those things were possible outcomes of kite flying. I did my best to reason through it.

“Sweet Pea, kites are made to fly. If we never fly it, then we'll never know how much fun it is and we'll never see how high it goes.”

She couldn’t get past it. I tried to force it for a few more seconds, thinking she would catch on and forget about the danger, but she started to cry. I let the kite float toward the ground, and it came to rest on the grass. She ran over to it and scooped it up.

“I want to put it back in the car.”

I walked her to the car and opened the trunk. She laid it in gently and ran back toward the swing set. I closed the trunk and joined her on the swings. The kite stayed in the car all weekend.

It didn't fall. 

But it also didn't fly. 

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