At a glance
It’s natural to want to protect your child.
Letting go of guilt is one way to keep yourself from being too protective.
You can help your child become and feel more independent.
We all want to protect our kids from harm. And if you have a child who learns and thinks differently, it’s only natural to want to throw your protection level into overdrive.
But it’s easy to fall into the trap of protecting your child too much. Overprotecting can feel good at first, but it doesn’t help kids adapt. When parents and caregivers are too protective, they aren’t letting kids develop the skills they need to thrive. And kids can miss out on enjoying the sense of accomplishment and independence that comes from working hard to master new things.
Overprotection takes many forms. You might try to anticipate every possible problem before they even pop up. Some parents lower their expectations and end up doing every chore and task for their kids. And when kids have behavioral challenges, some parents feel uncomfortable about being strict with limits and rules.
Doing these things once in a while doesn’t mean you’re overprotective. But if they become your go-to moves, they can add up to a pattern of overprotective behavior.
Here are five ways to calm these natural impulses and help your child thrive.
Don’t fear the “firsts.”
From first steps to the first school dance, your child will try many new things. But just because your kids learn and think differently doesn’t mean you—or they—have to fear these first chances to try something new and exciting. Some milestones might be harder to manage, but it’s absolutely worth it in the end.
Try not to let your own worries fuel any fears your child may have. Come up with plans to address worry without holding your child back. For example, if you’re feeling edgy about your child’s first day riding the bus to school, don’t just offer to drive.
Instead, wait to see if your child seems particularly worried about it. See if you can find a buddy your child knows who will also be riding the bus. If your child is very worried, you could offer to follow the bus in your car.
Acknowledge everyone’s worries.
When your child goes to sleepaway camp or has a playdate without you, both of you may feel anxious. You may be tempted to downplay these anxieties. Or maybe it feels like too much to handle and you want to just keep your child home.
Instead, try talking through your worries together. This helps kids understand that it’s OK to be worried—but that it shouldn’t stop them from trying out new things.
Next, figure out ways to troubleshoot these problems and come up with backup plans together. When kids come up with ways to be more comfortable when trying new activities, they learn that they’re capable and strong.
Set up and stick to expectations.
Being clear about everyday expectations helps keep kids accountable for their actions. It also shows that you believe they can behave appropriately. And that sets the stage for the rules and boundaries that come with bigger responsibilities, like owning a cell phone or learning to drive a car.
Start by setting up some reasonable rules and limits with your child. Think of this as a working partnership. You explain what you expect of your child. In turn, your child can ask what you will do, too. Write it all down so there’s no doubt about what they say. If you need to work on one specific behavior, consider using a behavior contract.
Let your child make mistakes.
When kids struggle with friendships, face issues at school, or have a hard time at a first job, parents may feel tempted to jump in and help. That’s especially true when what’s happening seems linked to your child’s troubles with behavior.
But unless your child is in danger or is going to make a mistake that’ll have devastating results, think about stepping aside. Allowing kids the room to make mistakes doesn’t mean you’re setting them up to fail. It means you’re setting them up to solve problems and learn the skill of self-awareness.
Let go of the guilt.
Many parents of kids who learn and think differently feel guilt and shame. These negative feelings can lead families to do more than they normally would for a child. And that can make a child feel different or like they need extra protection from things that are hard.
Teaching kids ways to be independent might be harder than just doing things for them. But it’s well worth the time and energy. Kids who have opportunities to develop the skills to face challenges will be ready to navigate tough situations confidently.
Letting go of guilt can help you avoid being an overprotective parent.
Setting rules and sticking to them keeps you from doing everything for your child.
Kids who try new things feel more independent and capable.
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Mark J. Griffin, PhD was the founding headmaster of Eagle Hill School, a school for children with specific learning disabilities.