How 'Hyper Parenting' Is Creating Stressed and Anxious Kids

Filed under: Preschoolers, Teens, Development/Milestones: Babies

If you are reading this blog right now, chances are good you know what "co-sleeping", "crying-it-out" and "attachment parenting" means. It's likely that you have uttered the words "Baby Einstein," "milestones," "Montessori" and "time-out." You could probably spot a Bugaboo, a pair of Robeez, a Diaper Genie or an "alpha mommy" without batting an eye. And you've probably spent a great deal of time discussing these "parenting issues" long after junior has gone to sleep -- topics that you never even knew existed before you had children. I certainly have.

It's no secret that in today's society, we as parents are preoccupied with our kids. Once we've welcomed that bundle of joy into our lives, we spend countless hours agonizing over what's best for them. But a new documentary examines this parental preoccupation, and reveals that "hyper parenting" is not only stressing out families, it's destroying our children's independence.

Hyper Parents & Coddled Kids is a Canadian documentary premiering Thursday, February 4th at 9 PM ET/PT on CBC TV. It explores the phenomena of "hyper" or "helicopter" parenting, a style that emerged in the 1980s, and continues to be a common social trend today. It is characterized by parents who over-protect, over-indulge and over-schedule their kids. Some of the examples seem extreme. There's a couple spending thousands of dollars on a "princess" party for a one-year-old, a couple having their kindergartners tutored to help get them into a desirable private school, and one parent who would consider implanting a GPS microchip under her child's skin if the technology were available.

It might sound way over the top, but co-director Maria LeRose says these parents aren't crazy, they are just being swept up in the immense social pressure to be a "good" parent.

"It started with the baby boomers," says LeRose. "We were a bit older, we had fewer children and also we had a little bit more money. There was a lot of literature coming out at the time about child development, about self-esteem and attachment parenting, convincing us that we couldn't trust our gut. Now there were parenting experts to tell us how to do it. Then as the trend grew, business caught on and said, here are some parents who are scared and anxious, let's sell them stuff. And it's just spiralled since then."

Over-protectiveness is one hallmark of hyper-parenting. The film introduces the many devices parents can use to spy on their kids, from devices that monitor their internet usage, emails and cell phones, to GPS trackers installed in cars. The film features clinical psychologist Madeline Levine, who points out that kids need to be trusted, or they won't have the confidence to navigate the world without their parents. And one of the reasons that parents tend to overprotect is the effect of mass media, where coverage of child abductions far outweighs any actual danger to the child.

"If there's a bad event anywhere in the world involving a child, parents are being bombarded with it," says LeRose. "And it's done in a way with music and images that it's seared into their brains. So they get this idea that it's a dangerous world, when it's not. In fact, in terms of child abductions by strangers, there are fewer than in the past."

The film spends a lot of time on the most damaging aspect of hyper parenting: The micromanaging and over-scheduling of kids. In many families, every moment of a child's day is taken up by a class or a program or some kind of adult-structured activity. Parents feel immense pressure to compete with their friends and colleagues, and to stimulate their young child's development in whatever way they can. As LeRose says, some parents are enrolling children in multiple activities in order to "build a resume" that will set them up for a good school, and the successful life they believe will follow. As a result, children end up with no time for essential free play, or even to just "sit around".

"The children are stressed, and so is the family as a unit," says LeRose. "Families don't have time for family dinner anymore, that quiet downtime, because they are in this race to prepare their children. It affects the children and it also affects the parents and the marriages."

And it's not just the parents of young children who are micromanaging their kids. Parents are becoming increasingly involved in their adult children's lives, from constantly texting their university-aged kids to setting up their workstations at their first jobs, to negotiating salary increases for their children. "We are doing for our children what they ought to be doing themselves," says LeRose. In addition to creating a lack of independence, the constant involvement can set up children who are overly stressed about living up to their parents' expectations. As one university student in the film puts it, "praise is the new criticism". A child has been told he's so special, he can't take the risk of failing. And that sets up a young adult for anxiety and depression.

But with all the competing information out there about how to be a "good" parent, how are we to know the right way to care for, not coddle, or children? LeRose has an example: "If your child doesn't make a sports team, it's devastating. There are two possible responses. Number one, you go to the coach and get your kid back on the team. Number two, you spend time with your child helping them navigate it, helping them think it through and get back in the saddle. The first one may make the child happier in the short term, but the second choice is better for the child."

Here's a sneak peek:



Hyper Parents & Coddled Kids
premieres Thursday, February 4th at 9PM ET/PT on CBC TV
and repeats on CBC News Network on Friday, February 5th at 10PM ET/PT. Check your local listings.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.