The Trouble With Raising Children In A Bubble


A parent writes: What advice do you have for overly protective parents pushing  kids to act out their whims.
Parents’ protective instincts motivate many decisions as children grow and experience all that life has to offer. The wish to ensure safety, reduce stress and monitor exposure to harsh or inappropriate realities is critically important. But sometimes the urge to protect is excessive and interrupts the healthy development of self sufficient functioning. Instead of supporting appropriate autonomy, a vital building block for self-confidence, parents erect barriers through onerous rules and age-inappropriate restrictions. Parenting becomes associated with preserving children in a restrictive bubble that curtails healthy emotional growth and life experience. Such “bubble parenting” fosters an overdependence upon others, decreased self-reliance, and most troubling, tendencies toward addictive behaviors.
If you or someone you care about has not fully considered the trouble with raising children in a bubble, consider these coaching tips for balancing protection with support for independence: 
Examine what factors may be contributing to an overly protective and prohibiting style of parenting. A backdrop of challenging childhood events, such as trauma, loss, or injury, may have bred an anxious aversion to letting children grow up and experience life’s discomforts. Or perhaps skewed perceptions and suspicions have emerged out of a deep seated distrust of the world, and are impeding the view of the parenting job as “giving them wings.”  Sometimes a child has committed a serious error in judgment and this fact continues to haunt all subsequent parenting decisions. It’s important to consider these and other potential sources when trying to discern the foundation for bubble parenting.
Distinguish between personal issues that fuel parental prohibitions and the child’s unique strengths and limitations. Children vary in their readiness to take independent steps such as accepting sleepover invitations, staying home alone for short periods, walking to nearby homes and stores, and so on. When parents delay permitting these privileges, despite indications of preparedness, the costs can strain both the parent-child relationship and the child’s healthy emotional growth. Some kids will internalize the parent’s misguided suspicions and apprehensions while others may pursue autonomy on their own terms, violating suffocating rules and perhaps putting themselves in harm’s way due to the angry wish to disregard parental input.   
Ignoring the window for permitting appropriate freedoms gives the parent less of a voice in helping shape the child’s self-guidance skills when away from home. Many points in life call upon wise independent decision making and children need a lot of early experience and skills to learn how to think for themselves. Circumstances such as learning how to assert themselves with pushy peers, calming down when faced with adversity, and managing complex interactions with friends, are some of the many building blocks to developing competence and confidence in dealing with the outside world. While life is much trial, error, and success in childhood, all are needed so that parents can guide and advise. 
Share  doubts and discomforts with trusted friends, professionals, and relatives for more realistic calibration of the spectrum of privilege vs. prohibition in your parenting. Pediatricians, clergy, teachers, and guidance counselors can be especially helpful in this regard. And educate yourself about what is generally appropriate at different ages.
Dr. Steven Richfield is an author and child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting. Contact him at 610-238-4450 or