By Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
Fiction tends to deal harshly with overprotected children. Veruca Salt, the pampered rich girl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is attacked by squirrels and tossed down a garbage chute. Dudley Dursley, Harry Potter’s cousin, is worshipped by his parents despite his objectionable behavior — and winds up sprouting a pig’s tail that has to be surgically removed.
We don’t need fiction to tell us it’s a bad idea to overprotect our children, but most parents I know struggle with exactly how much protection is too much.
New research shows that, when it comes to bullying, overprotecting your child may make him a target. In a study published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect, researchers at the University of Warwick reviewed 70 studies of 200,000 children and found that children “exposed to negative parenting" are more likely to be bullied. If this seems exasperatingly obvious, here’s the rub: researchers include being overprotective right alongside being abusive and neglectful in their definition of “negative parenting behavior.”
It may seem unfair to put overprotective parents in the same “bad parent” category as those who abuse and neglect their kids, but this research indicates that too much sheltering can put a child at significant bullying risk. Most of us know parents who jump in on their child’s side, no matter what the circumstances, at the slightest hint of conflict or distress. In my experience, these kids often have problems with their peers. As the new research suggests, if kids don’t have the opportunity to manage social situations themselves, they may not develop the skills they'll need when a bully comes along.
Tears and targets
As the University of Warwick’s Dieter Wolke, the lead author of the study, told the BBC, bullies tend to go after the kids they perceive as vulnerable, for example, the child who runs away or crumbles into tears the first time she's bullied. That initial reaction establishes the child as a good target, and triggers a pattern of repeated torment.
Sharing these findings doesn't mean we should let bullies off the hook, blame the victims, or undermine the need for strong antibullying programs in our schools. The study shows how important it is for parents to help their kids develop communication and negotiation skills — which means letting your child practice with siblings and peers — without adult intervention. Of course, you shouldn't let your kids whale on each other and hope for the best. But it's important to let kids resolve minor conflicts without adult meddling. After the fact, you can discuss the situation with your child, talk about what worked and what didn’t, and brainstorm ways to do it better next time.
Get out of the way
It’s a lesson that many parents, myself included, need to learn over and over: sometimes the best parenting means simply getting out of the way — and letting kids figure it out for themselves.Follow @CMMatthiessen