Overparenting is widely recognized as a problematic approach to raising kids. For nearly a decade, studies have shown how the rise of the "helicopter parent" has been worsening children's anxiety and school performance in the K-12 years. Now we're witnessing what happens when the overparented child grows up, and it's a trainwreck that is painful to watch, but impossible to ignore.
As an inpatient adolescent psychiatrist, I see the most severe cases. Oftentimes, the overly-involved parents have been impeding the development of autonomy in their child for years. The child comes to the hospital anxious and depressed but doesn't have the tools to make a change. So the parents become even more involved, and the child becomes more dependent and emotionally stunted. It's a vicious cycle laced with the best intentions.
I try to help these adolescents become more well-adjusted adults by teaching them how to develop an authentic identity that is separate from their parents. I encourage them not to slip into the victim role and blame their parents and the world, because that is both counterproductive and psychologically harmful. If they can be open to taking responsibility for their choices and are willing to develop insight into their strengths and limitations, they will be on the path to self-empowerment and confidence.
While working with this population, I have noticed a parallel between the behavior and psychological distress I see in the overparented child and the growing number of college students protesting on campuses with sensitivities and demands that seem disproportionate to reality.
College students across America are holding sit-ins and hunger strikes in the name of feeling unsafe and discriminated against, despite the public's perception that American universities are generally liberal, tolerant places. While some of the protests are warranted, the sheer number of these occurrences has caused sociologists to wonder if we're witnessing the development of a "victimhood culture": an environment in which people are encouraged to think of themselves as weak, marginalized, and oppressed in order to take advantage of third parties to police and punish perceived transgressions.
This reminds me of a former patient of mine, a male college student who I saw in weekly therapy. He had been raised by a tolerant family in a liberal community that accepted him for being gay. However, in childhood he complained of feeling oppressed and often acted out in anger. His parents and mental health clinicians validated his perception of being discriminated against unquestioningly, even though there were no significant events or trauma to substantiate his beliefs.
During our sessions, this patient would express deep resentment for not being accepted. He claimed with outrage that on his college campus, "People might stare at me if I chose to wear a dress one day." When I pointed out that he attended an extremely liberal college in the Bay Area, and that it was less likely that people would respond in an aggressive way if he wore a dress there, he could not be budged from his furious stance. He was unable to believe that the world could ever be accepting towards him, and that made him bitter and isolated. He dropped out of school shortly thereafter, stating that he could not feel safe in such a hostile environment. He was unable to make progress in therapy and ended up quitting prematurely.
Another similar patient I saw was a 14-year old female presenting with depression and anxiety. Though she was of moderate intelligence, she and her highly-educated parents insisted on her taking the toughest classes in pursuit of her primary goal: to be accepted to a top college such as Harvard or Princeton. Her mother helped the child compensate for her below average grades by citing a "learning difference" and aggressively advocating for academic accommodations so that her daughter could continue her quest for scholastic excellence. These semantics elided the reality that the girl was not at the same intellectual level as her brightest peers. She became severely depressed and engaged in self-harm behaviors, citing her primary stressor as the competitive nature of school.
In therapy with this patient, I began to see that underneath her depression and anger was a sinking feeling that she may not be as intelligent as the smartest kids in her class. I encouraged her to explore her underlying insecurities, but she would quickly recoil into a defensive state of mind and resort to blaming her teachers and parents for the disconnect between her grades and her ambitions. After an extended period of therapy combined with a coordinated effort from her parents to give their child the space to find her own way, the patient began to develop the insight and self-acceptance that was the key to resolving her depression and anxiety.
I believe that psychotherapy can help teens recover from years of overparenting, and I have been a part of that process. What seems almost irreversible is the growing trend of entitled young Americans who are demanding accommodations and reparations for perceived slights or "microaggressions" that may be only loosely based in reality.
It seems likely that many of the students at elite and liberal colleges who are complaining about the ways in which the world is keeping them down were once children raised by helicopter parents. The coddled child becomes the entitled teenager. The teen who expects his parents to fix his problems becomes the college student who demands that professors and administrators remove his obstacles.
If we continue to walk on eggshells to avoid offending these hypersensitive young adults, we are empowering their victimhood status. If we continue to indulge their irrational demands, we are robbing them of the opportunity to learn how to function independently in the real world. If we continue to overparent our kids, we are in danger of raising further generations of adolescents that are missing three key virtues of character: self-reliance, self-confidence, and resilience.
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