Parental Interference: How the Pressure to Perform is Undermining Our Children’s Ability to Succeed

As parents, we want what is best for our children. We want to protect them from all of the bad in the world and give them every opportunity to become successful. However, this desire to help our children has gone awry. There’s been a societal shift to an extreme form of parental interference, the effects of which we’ve seen clinically for the past ten years, that’s become detrimental to our kids. As described in this weekend’s New York Times, these “snowplow parents,” also called bulldozer or lawnmower parents, have taken overparenting to a new level, with the goal of removing all obstacles in their children’s lives so their children have stellar resumes full of academic and athletic achievements on their college applications.

That means not just getting their children into exclusive preschools and schools, overscheduling with activities and playdates, but selecting their friends, making sure that their children get grades they may not have earned, arranging for internships or spots on sports teams their children aren’t qualified to do, without ever having earned these positions or even being put in a position of possible failure.

Parents are micromanaging the experience of childhood by removing all obstacles, so that their children achieve “success” without ever having to encounter disappointment, frustration or failure. Parental interference fosters an extreme sense of entitlement, which leads to a high-risk environment for mental illness and addiction in the very young adults the parents were hoping to help.

We are all acutely aware of the growing divide between the haves and the have nots. The closer you are to the top 0.1 percent of incomes, the faster you’re pulling away. However, even those in the top ten percent are making considerable gains over their peers in the bottom 90. Affluent families see this trend and recognize that social mobility is going to get harder. The belief that higher education is the best way to open the doors of opportunity has reached a fever pitch in our society. Families’ deepest fear is their kids will be left behind if they don’t have a degree from a selective college. It’s a fear that drives behavior akin to a looter in a riot.

Whether it is the recent college admissions scandal or the overuse of medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to improve performance, recently discussed by my colleague Dr. Susan Blank in this blog post, parents are seeking every advantage for their children. Yet, this behavior creates tunnel vision about what’s really going on with their kid. It keeps parents from seeing their children may be struggling in one area or another. This hyper-focus on their own agenda drives parenting decisions that, while good intentioned, are often not in the child’s best interests.

The Importance of letting mistakes happen

Parental over-involvement is rampant, not just in high school but on into college and beyond. Even in my own work experience, I’ve had parents of employees call me on behalf of their adult children! That’s alarming, because I think that has a profound impact on the development of a healthy sense of self, causing individuals to think, “The people closest to me have so little confidence in my ability to take care of myself that they are going to intrude in my life as if I were a child.”

Parents really don’t want their kids to think that they’re incompetent, but parents are having a hard time managing their own anxiety about their children’s future. When we rob our children of the experiences of childhood and young adulthood by making all of their decisions and letting them escape consequences of their actions, they never learn to navigate their feelings, how to overcome failure or achieve.

We have to learn to let each other make mistakes and learn from them.

We all make mistakes, and there are some life lessons we need to learn in high school when the consequences for making a mistake are less dire. Instead, are we going to learn it at our first job at the age of 25? If not then, when we’re married and have two kids? As life goes on, it becomes more complex and the consequences become more severe.

As a society, we have become far less tolerant of the idea that we should ever feel uncomfortable. We rush to seek solace rather than struggling through pain or difficulty. This escapism is a driving force behind today’s addiction epidemic and the growing concerns related to process addictions such as gambling, sex and gaming.

Why a sense of entitlement is so dangerous

Perhaps most dangerous is the sense of entitlement that grows out of having every opportunity given to you on a silver platter. Acting entitled is symptomatic of insecurity. Someone who is confident won’t act entitled, because they’re confident in their ability to get their needs met, while someone who feels insecure will often act entitled as an over-compensation for their internal feelings of inadequacy.

That sense of entitlement puts people at additional risk for addictive behaviors, because they are robbed of developing the resiliencies and protective factors to resist harmful behaviors as an outlet to deal with their issues. Without the opportunity to develop those things on their own, eventually they’re going to gravitate toward whatever helps them get their needs met, and frequently that’s something harmful, like drugs and alcohol.

A parent reading this might feel, “Great, so it’s all my fault.” That’s not what I mean, and I don’t think that sort of thinking is helpful. Yet, it may come as a surprise to many parents that they are the largest single external pressure on their adolescent and young adults. But it’s important to remember that door swings both ways. Parents can wield outsized influence on their children through healthy dialogue about risk factors, stress, and the dangers of drug and alcohol use. Believe it or not, children and young adults look first to their parents for feedback on these issues. However, if parents abdicate their responsibility to have that dialog, their children will default to their peer group for guidance.

For most of the families we work with at Caron, the kids were having problems with drugs and alcohol for many years. Yet it wasn’t until the problem became severe that the family began any sort of dialog around drugs and alcohol. The ostrich approach to problems -- where you stick your head in the sand -- really leads to a much greater likelihood of progression into serious consequences. It’s hard and uncomfortable to talk to your kid about drugs and alcohol, sex, porn, relationships, bullying, etc., but if you begin to do it at an early stage, you can influence them in a way that affects their long-term trajectory in a very positive way.

I get it. This stuff is hard. It’s tempting to throw money at the problem. But you know what, being a grown up is hard, and so is being a parent. Parenthood should have moments of joy and happiness, but, at the end of the day, our responsibility as parents is to help shape the character of our children. They need boundaries, guidance, and that type of feedback from us. They need to develop their own internal resources to navigate the ups and downs of life, to stand on their own two feet.

It’s the greatest gift we can give our kids.

A man and a woman leaning on each other

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