The Protection Paradox: Curbing Parental Overprotection

To be alive on the crust of this earth is to face many risks and dangers. This truth is at the heart of one of the biggest challenges parents’ face – how to manage these risks without resorting to overprotection–an exaggerated form of protection that stems from worry and anxiety. Overprotection almost always leads to unreasonable restrictions on a child’s age-appropriate independence. This trend has increased in the past three decades but its effects have never been thoroughly examined until the 2015 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth shined a spotlight on it. They call it, “The Protection Paradox.” It highlights the fact that a significant number of children are struggling to achieve minimum levels of fitness and attain important coping skills. Canadian children, for example, scored a D minus on both sedentary behaviors and overall physical activity. The report’s conclusion is that we must take immediate steps to correct this problem or risk long-term physical and emotional health issues.

The solutions are simple really. Let kids play outside in nature and preserve their independence as much as possible. Tag lines in the report urge parents to do just that: “The Biggest Risk is Keeping Kids Indoors” and “Get Out of the Way and Let Them Play.” The report asserts that keeping children healthy over the long term should be our top priority, and that the benefits of keeping children active outdoors significantly outweigh any risks. In fact, keeping children supervised indoors is considered more risky for a number of compelling reasons.

The report lays out the case convincingly, backed with facts and statistics. Consider the following findings:

• The average child gets significantly less physical activity than they need because parents don’t allow them to play freely outside in nature. As a result, chronic health problems such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease are on the rise.

• The average child spends more time indoors engaged in solitary screen activities which means they have fewer opportunities to develop social skills. This impacts resilience, self-regulation, and skills needed for dealing with stress later in life.

The big questions we should all have is how did this problem develop in the first place and what can be done about it? No doubt there are several factors that led to this trend but an important one may be that parents are inundated with information today. Round the clock news, social media, and the availability of instant information plug us into catastrophic stories on a continual basis. We hear detailed accounts of child abductions, car accidents, bullying, gangs and gun violence. We also hear a lot of uninformed opinions that lack scientific scrutiny such as the popular misconception that vaccines cause autism. Sifting through information, assessing whether it’s credible, and not becoming overwhelmed by the volume of distressing information is challenging.

Keeping fear and worry in check takes a conscious effort. The authors of this report are asking parents to weigh risks rationally, do their best to be reasonable and to rely on scientific facts when making decisions. They also remind us to accept moderate consequences without overreacting.

The tough part is that safety is the highest priority when it comes to our survival and parents are “hardwired” to keep their child safe. If fear is triggered, stress hormones flood our body and we are primed to act. A car is driving recklessly down the street and we grab our child to hold them back from the curb. This stress response worked well when the threat to our survival was an animal predator, but in the 21st century we don’t deal with these kinds of dangers very often. Nowadays we cope with complex problems such as SIDS, autism, pedophilia, child abductions, environmental toxins, road safety, and childhood cancer among others. These problems need a different kind of response – ones that involve critical thinking.

Each of us responds to worry and fear in our own way. Keeping fear under control takes a good measure of self-awareness. Parents need to ask: Do I tend to worry a lot or exaggerate problems? Do I think about worst-case scenarios often? Have I restricted my child’s activities based on my fears rather than facts? If so, how can I reduce my anxiety without taking away my child’s independence? We may need to look at creative solutions in our neighbourhoods such as walking pools instead of carpools so kids can walk to school together. We may also benefit from talking about our fear and worries with a therapist.

Ideally, a child should be encouraged to take reasonable risks with a parent’s support and guidance. They should be encouraged to explore their neighbourhood and form friendships on their own terms – not only when supervised by adults. They should be given a thumbs-up when it comes to taking reasonable physical risks like riding bicycles, skating, playing road hockey, running and climbing. Statistics show that most injuries associated with outdoor play are minor.

Here are some practical suggestions:

1. Assess risks and dangers as accurately as possible. For example, the chance that a child will be abducted by a stranger is one in fourteen million. That number is decreased when children are outdoors with friends.

2. Allow increasing independence as a child gets older. Recognize that age-appropriate milestones such as walking to school without supervision are essential for a child’s self-esteem.

3. Negotiate reasonable limits that provide the child with as much freedom as possible. A child needs to feel that his parents trust him and that they have confidence in him. When a child expresses he is ready for a new level of freedom it usually means he is ready. Parents should then follow the next suggestion.

4. Teach your child the skills they need to deal with common risks and dangers so that they will be as safe as possible. For example, teach your child how to approach a dog safely, how to cross a street, how to ride a bike safely on the road.

5. Children should be encouraged to enjoy free play outdoors and in nature daily so that they get an adequate amount of exercise and independence each day. Sedentary, indoor screen time should be limited.

Fear and worry may have a biological function but as this report reminds us, they must be balanced with rational, fact-based thinking. If they’re not they can lead to overprotection and rob a child of enjoyment and happiness and even make it impossible to become a healthy, functioning adult. We need to do better. This is simply too steep of a price for our children to pay.



ParticipACTION. The Biggest Risk is Keeping Kids Indoors. The 2015 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. Toronto: ParticipACTION; 2015. Read the report here.


Find a family therapist or parenting counselor here.


The views expressed in these blogs are the author’s own and not necessarily reflective of those of Psychotherapy Matters.  Copyright © 2015

Karen Skinulis

Karen Skinulis became interested in parenting issues as a young teenager when her father, Stan Shapiro, first met Rudolf Dreikurs. Their enthusiasm about the importance of respectful parenting infused her with a desire to work in this field. She graduated from York University with a BA in psychology and then went on to become a certified Montessori Teacher. For the last twenty-five years she has taught parenting classes and workshops to a wide audience including organizations and corporations such as The University Health Network, TD Bank, and MDS Sciex as well as family-focused agencies such as The Catholic Children’s Aid Society and The Kiwanis Club. She has co-authored three books for parents and teachers: Practical Parenting:A Common Sense Guide to Raising Cooperative, Self Reliant and Loving Children, Classrooms That Work: A Teacher’s Guide to Discipline Without Stress, and Parent Talk:50 Quick, Effective Solutions to the Most Common Parenting Challenges. Karen is the mother of two grown daughters.

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