If I could take every scraped knee, fever, and hurt feelings from my kids so they would never feel pain, I would. It breaks my heart every time I see them sick or suffering. But while some amount of sheltering and setting boundaries is definitely necessary (my 3-year-old does not need to watch Bridgerton, for example), too much sheltering could possibly hurt them in the long run. I would know — I was homeschooled and wasn't allowed to read what I wanted growing up (like Harry Potter), and now I have anxiety and low self-confidence.
Sheltering encompasses behaviors aimed at protection your kids — everything from, say, catching your children from falling off the playground, to not letting them go to the park, ever, just in case something bad happens to them. But when it goes that far, it can harm their development. "Over-sheltered children are restrained from exploring and understanding the external world freely often due to parents' anxiety and apprehension," said Leela R. Magavi, MD, Hopkins-trained psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry in California. That's a key point — it often has more to do with a parent's anxieties than a child's. And no matter what good intentions you start, it doesn't often work out like you'd hope.
So how do we break this cycle of anxious parents leading to overprotectiveness leading to anxious kids? POPSUGAR asked psychologists and psychiatrists about how to know if your kids are too sheltered, and tips for striking that balance.
How Do I Know If My Child Is Too Sheltered?
What is normal for one family may be out of the question for another, based on cultural, religious, and personality differences — so "over-sheltered" can mean different things for different families. However, there are several behaviors to watch for to determine if you are over-sheltering your kids, said Janine Domingues, PhD, clinical psychologist and manager of curriculum development and professional training, school, and community programs at the Child Mind Institute. If children get easily frustrated when things don't go according to plan, easily anxious about making decisions or having to do things on their own, are overly asking for help without first trying, or feeling hesitant and avoidant of trying new things and having new experiences, then they might be too sheltered.
Is It Harmful to Over-Shelter My Child?
Children need to be exposed to problems in order to learn how to navigate a challenging world, said Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. However, some sheltering is required in order to establish a sense of safety and security. "Problems are introduced when folks are sheltered well past developmental appropriateness," she told POPSUGAR. "Sheltering should only continue until an individual is able to internalize a sense of safety within him or herself."
Otherwise, you run the risk of harming your child's growth and development with your well-intended desire to protect them. "Children tend to have difficulty making decisions or speaking for themselves when they are too sheltered. They may exhibit anxiety and self-esteem concerns. They may struggle with remaining independent, and may additionally have difficulty handling rejection and failure. They may be less imaginative and creative," Dr. Magavi said. They can also struggle with trying new things, like making friends, traveling, making decisions, and much more.
How Do I Balance Caring for My Kids and Over-Sheltering Them?
There's no magic formula. "I think it requires parents/caregivers to take a step back and remember that the experience of distress, failure, and uncertainty is all necessary to learn how tolerate with the support and help from a loving parent/caregiver," Dr. Domingues told POPSUGAR. "This will help children to foster resilience skills that are crucial and needed for life." As your children work though any distress, they'll learn that they can survive, they can get through anything, and they will be better prepared for the future. "As parents, we want to be able to scaffold — be there to support and to help with the process of growing — and that means providing the space to have children explore, provide them with choices, and have them try and fail, and try again," Dr. Domingues said.
One of the best ways that parents can find balance is to model behavior they would like their children to exhibit. "Practice daily self-compassion and remind yourself that perfectionistic and overprotective parenting could cause your children to perceive every shortcoming as a failure, which may lead to longstanding self-esteem concerns," Dr. Magavi told POPSUGAR. Also be mindful of stepping in constantly to solve problems for your child (whether it be an altercation with a friend or figuring out a problem for school), dwelling on failures as opposed to effort, pointing out the things that may go wrong with a new experience, and making choices for them so they don't have to.
In the end, you just have to trust the process in parenting. "Human beings, and particularly children, are designed to take risks and learn from their successes and mistakes," said Ariel Kornblum, PsyD, BCBA, LBA, and director of ABA Services at Manhattan Psychology Group in New York City. "When children struggle or become frustrated, parents can validate those feelings and provide some support. But remember: Times that are more challenging are often where grit comes into play, self-esteem is formed, and learning happens."
Parenting is constantly evolving. Sometimes, kids need more support, nurturing, and yes, sheltering, and other times it's better to back off. Dr. Kornblum said it's like riding a bike: "At first, it's scary. Then it becomes hard and frustrating. But with the right amount of parent support eventually it all clicks. The moment in which your child learns to do it for themselves is magic."