"Hyperparenting," a term referring to parents who are overly involved with their children, has recently been the subject of news reports. We read or hear about parents who get into fights at their children's soccer games, coach their kids for their nursery school admissions interviews, write their kids college entry essays, organize their kids' play dates. To explore this phenomenon further, AboutOurKids spoke with Dr. Alexandra Barzvi, Clinical Director of the Anita Saltz Institute for Anxiety and Mood Disorders at the NYU Child Study Center.
Q: What's meant by hyperparenting or overparenting?
Dr. B: Hyperparenting means being overly involved, overly controlling, and overly stimulating. Overly involved parents usually hover over their children and make day-to-day decisions for them: what to eat, what to wear, what to do after school, who to play with.
Q: What's going on? Is this something new or is it an old phenomenon discovered by the media?
Dr. B: I think there have always been overly concerned parents. Today, however, with the increased stress of daily life, the tendency to overparent is increased. Many parents feel pressured to be successful in every area of their lives, including their achievements, their activities, their careers, and their parenting.
Q: What's the difference between concerned parenting and hyperparenting?
Dr. B: I think hyperparenting starts out as good parenting. These parents really want to create a perfect world for their child and to meet their child's every need. They don't want their child to experience frustration or to feel pain. They are determined to do everything that can for their child, which is certainly a conscientious and commendable goal. But some parents become too involved, micromanaging every moment of their children's lives—social, academic, athletic.
Q: Isn't this a good thing?
Dr. B: It may sound like the ultimate in parental devotion, but there is a real downside. By trying to make the child happy, they don't give the child a chance to learn to make herself happy. Overly involved parents don't give their children a chance to develop their own capabilities -- to calm down by themselves or to entertain themselves, or even to just play by themselves or with other kids. Parents need to appreciate the power of play; through play children develop their imagination and learn about their world.
Q: We hear a lot about overscheduling children. Isn't it a good idea for kids to have enriched experiences after school, especially if their parents are working?
Dr. B: It's certainly important for parents to know that their kids are busy and active after school. But sometimes scheduling arrangements are carried too far. Many kids are part of team sports, have music and art lessons, extra tutoring, religious instruction. Although each of these experiences is certainly valuable, their meaning gets lost when there's a surplus. Children who are overscheduled become overstimulated and can't really benefit from so hectic a program.
Q: Why would a parent become overly involved with their child?
Dr. B: Some parents have a terrible fear that they won't turn out to be good parents so they overcompensate by trying too hard. Some might be filling their own need to be as perfect in parenting as they are in other areas of their lives. These parents often find themselves competing with other parents out of a fear that their children will be less advanced than their peers, or even left behind, socially or academically. Some might see their children as a reflection of themselves, measuring their worthiness by their child's happiness and achievements, while others might be trying to make up for their own deprived childhoods. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as the perfect parent, so trying to meet such unrealistic expectations only leads to disappointment, guilt and feelings of failure.
Q: How do children respond to overly involved parents?
Dr. B: Overly involved parents don't give a child enough opportunities to develop a sense of self-confidence. The unspoken message children get from all the controlling and scheduling and scrutiny is that they're not capable of making decisions and solving their own problems. Children who are overparented might feel like they're not trusted by their parents. They can become overly dependent or overly compliant, or conversely, become angry and resentful and reject what the parent is trying to teach them. You want kids to develop certain essential skills and if you're overparenting then you are interrupting these naturally occurring skills. If you are always rescuing your child they will never have to figure things out for themselves. It is natural for parents to want to rescue their kids from negative emotions, but it's important to realize that anger, sadness, and disappointment are very normal feelings. The best thing you can do as a parent is to let your children have these feelings so they can learn to manage them and work through them on their own.
Q: What are the essential skills that parents can teach their children to help them become self-reliant and self-assured?
Dr. B: Successful parents understand that their feelings and behaviors directly impact their children's feelings and behaviors. They emphasize collaboration and cooperation, not control, and they focus their attention on the positive aspects of their children's behavior. Tuned in to their children's capabilities at different ages, they encourage them to think for themselves and to learn how to solve problems, rather than relying on others to solve their problems for them. These strategies build self-esteem and lay the foundation for a self-confident and independent person.
Q: How do you know if you're overdoing parenting? What can you do about it?
Dr. B: The first step is to realize that it's happening. Be honest with yourself. If you suspect that you're overly involved with your children, pushing too hard, and have unrealistic expectations, you can re-think your priorities. A possible first step would be to cut back on scheduled activities. By deemphasizing activities and achievements, more important concerns, such as helping a child build self-esteem and establish good interpersonal relationships, take precedence.
Q: How can a parent achieve a just-right level of involvement?
Dr. B: Stop rushing around and carve out special times to spend with your children in a relaxed, non-demanding situation. Plan activities whose purpose is to enjoy simply doing things together, not to achieve a specific goal. Give yourself time to think about what you want for your children. Most parents want the same things for their children; they want them to be happy, well-adjusted, respectful of others, and self-motivated. The most important support parents can give their children is to communicate that love does not depend on achievements, that they are loved and valued for who they are.