Text: Emilie Veillon
Photo: Hugh Kretschmer

Children under close watch

More and more parents watch their kids so closely that they prevent them from developing self-confidence and independence.


“Helicopter Mom” (2010) is American photographer Hugh Kretschmer’s take on the overprotective parent.

The American journalist Hanna Rosin sparked a heated debate in the United States last year with her article “The Overprotected Kid”. She makes a troubling observation. In a single generation, the parent-child relationship has totally changed. From her own childhood, she remembers playing with friends in her neighbourhood for hours on end. As a mother, she has realised that her three children do not have nearly as much freedom. She spends virtually every minute of her spare time with them, either playing or driving them to activities supervised by other adults. Basically, they are never alone.

Hanna Rosin is hardly the only parent doting on her children. Parents, especially mothers, tend to spend more time with their children, even though more of them now have jobs. The journalist indicates that in the 1970s, 80% of children in the United Kingdom walked to school alone, as opposed to less than 10% today. The trend is just as striking in Switzerland, as shown by the figures from the Swiss Federal Statistical Office (OFS). In 2013, parents spent an average of 34.3 hours per week taking care of their children, feeding and bathing them, playing with them, helping with homework and getting them around. That’s three hours more per week than in 2000.

High tech devices to watch closely over our children are available on the market.

In the cradle

Owlet Baby Care has come out with a smart sock that monitors an infant’s heart rate in real time. If any abnormality is detected, the device sends an alert to the parents’ smartphone.

Side by side

The Guardian bracelet sends a notification to parents’ smartphones if a child moves outside the defined safety perimeter.

Keeping track

Gadgets are available to locate your teenager in real time, such as “Jelocalise”, a GPS beacon that can be fitted onto their scooter.

What is happening? “Children have become a narcissistic extension of the parent,” says Olivier Halfon, chief physician of the University Unit for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV). In previous generations, the high risk of child mortality and the larger number of siblings meant that parents invested less mental energy in their children. Today, scarcity creates value. The prime example is China, where the only child is treated like royalty.”

Olivier Halfon asserts that the more children are considered valuable, the more they become the narcissistic extension of the parents and are therefore overprotected. This relationship emerges in the first days of a newborn’s life. Video surveillance is used to monitor their breathing, room temperature and humidity.
For older children, this behaviour transforms into over-involvement in their schooling. “Performance worship and pressure to succeed push parents to overstimulate their kids, trusting them less and not allowing them to have their own learning experiences,” Halfon says.

Close protection is also prevalent in playgrounds and leisure activities. Some American elementary schools ban games deemed too dangerous during break time. In the city, children are often made to wear helmets and knee pads when out on their scooter. Playgrounds have soft ground surfacing, nearly flat slides, and parents assist their kids in climbing. “It’s a shame,” the psychiatrist says, “because children have exceptional motor and balance skills. But also because they need to be allowed to get into danger and take risks. That’s what builds their self-confidence.”

Lack of independence

By constantly fussing over their children, parents do not leave them the space they need to develop on their own and gradually become independent. “It’s a vicious circle, because the more attentive parents are to their children, the more they worry, and the more their baby senses the parents’ lack of trust and is affected psychosomatically,” says Mathilde Morisod Harari, associate physician in liaison child psychiatry at the CHUV. As they get older, children become anxious and aggressive because they don’t understand the world as well. Curiously, this gushing love prevents children from being alone and having psychological space where they can form their own opinion, disagree, and which helps them to build who they are as a person. A lack of independence, difficulty in understanding where real dangers lie – because they have never learnt to gauge them properly – and low self-esteem are common in overprotected children.

Danielle Laporte, a Canadian psychologist and author of several books on child psychology who died in 1998, defined self-esteem as the inner certainty of one’s own value and the awareness of being a unique individual and someone with strengths and limits. She went on to say that self-esteem is linked to the perception we have of ourselves in different areas of life. Laporte also believed that children forge their self-image by observing and listening to their parents.

Saying things such as “Be careful, you’re going to fall!” or “You can’t do it” can be toxic. “In the worst cases, parents’ overprotection can lead to behaviour disorders, even in girls, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and other behaviour disorders,” says Olivier Halfon. Each parent needs

to try to strike the right balance between protecting his or her children against the dangers of the world that they are still too young to perceive, and leaving them the freedom to experiment and grow at each stage of their development. ⁄

Mathilde Morisod Harari, associate physician in liaison child psychiatry at the CHUV, believes that therapy can help overprotective parents reduce their anxiety.

IV Is parents’ anxiety related to any specific factors?
MMHIn psychotherapy sessions, we often see mothers traumatised by a complicated pregnancy, parents of premature infants, babies with sleep disorders, or babies who cry incessantly. In most cases, we see significant parental anxiety linked to the child’s history, and these parents tend to overprotect their babies.
IV How does that surface in their behaviour?
MMH Parents of a premature newborn can, for example, remain attached to that first image of a fragile baby. That can cause fear that will continue throughout the child’s development. What if something happens while the baby’s sleeping? At the playground, can my child go down the slide without breaking a leg? In other cases, a baby’s sleep disorders are often influenced by a parent who has issues with separation. They have to be confident enough to leave their baby alone in his or her bed, all night long.
IV What can these parents do about it?
MMH When they come for therapy, we work together on changing parental perceptions. If we catch it early enough, we help them understand that the anxiety comes from them and that they need to leave the child some space for freedom. Transgenerational factors often come up. For example, a previous experience, such as a case of sudden infant death syndrome in one of the parent’s siblings, can play out again and disrupt the brand new relationship with the baby. Therapy sessions help detoxify all that and remove the old experience from the present one.




A whole list of terms has cropped up in English to describe trends in overprotective parenting. Here are a few examples.

Helicopter parent

Always hovering over their child, ready to fly in and rescue the youngster as soon as a problem arises.

Lawnmower parent

Mows down any obstacle in their child’s path, smoothing out problems the child may face.

Cotton wool kid

Metaphorically wrapped by their parents in a suit of cotton wool to protect them in all circumstances.

Teacup kid

Psychologically fragile, does not take criticism or rejection well and is easily
shattered when
it comes time
to go out into
the world.