Trophy kids in therapy

Parents who protect their children from frustration and disappointment, who turn every failure into “good try!” and every routine task into “great job!,” who devote themselves to making their children happy all the time are raising empty, confused, anxious, unhappy young adults who can’t deal with the normal frustrations of life, writes therapist Lori Gottlieb in The Atlantic.

Patients in their 20s or early 30s  report depression, anxiety,  difficulty choosing or committing to a satisfying career path, poor relationships, a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose — and loving, caring, endlessly supportive parents who are “my best friends in the whole world” and “always there for me.”

Since the 1980s, self-esteem has risen in tandem with rates of anxiety and depression, says Jean Twenge, co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic and professor of psychology at San Diego State University.

“Narcissists are happy when they’re younger, because they’re the center of the universe,” Twenge explains. “Their parents act like their servants, shuttling them to any activity they choose and catering to their every desire. Parents are constantly telling their children how special and talented they are.”

. . . In early adulthood, this becomes a big problem. “People who feel like they’re unusually special end up alienating those around them,” Twenge says. “They don’t know how to work on teams as well or deal with limits. They get into the workplace and expect to be stimulated all the time, because their worlds were so structured with activities. They don’t like being told by a boss that their work might need improvement, and they feel insecure if they don’t get a constant stream of praise. . . . They grew up in a bubble, so they get out into the real world and they start to feel lost and helpless. Kids who always have problems solved for them believe that they don’t know how to solve problems. And they’re right—they don’t.”

Instead of learning to face frustration at the age if six, when a better soccer team wins the game, overprotected kids face it for the first time in college, says Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. And that’s only if Mom and Dad don’t swoop in to save the day.

Parents refuse to believe their children might be average, Mogel says. “Every child is either learning-disabled, gifted, or both.” Parents prefer a learning-disability diagnosis to the possibility their child just isn’t all that smart. “They believe that ‘average’ is bad for self-esteem.” (A friend who was a school psychologist in an affluent suburb told me the exact same thing.)

Self-esteem doesn’t predict happiness, writes Gottlieb, “especially if the self-esteem comes from constant accommodation and praise rather than earned accomplishment.” Perseverance, resiliency, and reality-testing are better predictors of fulfillment and success.

It makes me feel thankful I wasn’t that nice to my kid. Her father and I made a habit of singing “You can’t always get what you want” to her when she confused her desires with reality.

About Joanne


  1. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Heh— my kids HATE that song, because we use it the same way around here! 🙂

    We actually TRY to enroll my daughter in activities that will be difficult or frustrating for her. Academics are pretty easy for her, so we go for gross motor skills things like Tai Kwon Do. She’s slowly learning to deal with frustration, and is actually developing perseverence. We’ve also had tears as all the whitebelts who started at the same time as her already advanced to yellow, but she’s just not ready yet. She still wants to keep trying.

    One problem we have is that her view of reality is often….. skewed. If she loses a race, it was because “my side was bumpier” not because the other kid ran faster. So we have a constant battle against the psycho-first-grader-worldview of “I’m really the best, it’s just that I had bad luck!”

  2. I don’t find the article’s theories to be particularly compelling.

    Here’s an alternative theory: A generation ago, or two generations ago, the same patients would be presenting with the same complaints, and the therapist would identify patterns from their childhood that were supposedly the root of those complaints. “Your mother was cold and distant, and nothing you did was ever good enough, so now you seek praise from others in order to ratify your self-worth.” Now that same patient says, “My mother was warm and supportive” so the explanation is “Your mother created in you a form of narcissism that leaves you believing that nothing you do is good enough unless you receive praise, so you now seek praise from others in order to ratify your self-worth.” Perhaps the problem isn’t with the parent, but lies instead with the theory that the parental relationship is the root of the client’s problems.

    As the article indicates, within broad parameters, kids will turn out okay – parents only need to be “good enough” (which is lucky for most of us). But if I accept that theory I’m not sure why I’m supposed to simultaneously accept that a parent can be too close to perfect. (Not that I believe that helicopter parenting is a demonstration of perfection.)

    Some of the anecdotes also don’t work for me. A small child pulling out the “it’s not fair” card and trying to manipulate a parent into a third choice? That seems like normal childhood behavior to me, not evidence that we should not give choices to children. Children test their boundaries – that’s normal and healthy, and this seems like a normal, healthy example.

    Also, the lament about how elementary school-age sports teams don’t keep score, or give out too many trophies – go to one of those games and ask one of the kids what the score is. Or go to a competitive league where they keep score. The idea of not keeping score serves multiple purposes, including helping to calm the “savage beast” parent who screams at kids from the sidelines, and minimizing the likelihood that a less talented child will end up being blamed for “losing the game for us”, particularly in the context of the non-competitive leagues at issue which typically require that every child on the team get a chance to play. The kids also know which teams are better than theirs, and which kids on their teams play better than they do. It’s nowhere near the cocoon the article suggests. And the next step for kids who stay in sports will be onto teams that keep score.

  3. “depression, anxiety, difficulty choosing or committing to a satisfying career path, poor relationships, a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose”

    Sounds like Dustin Hoffman’s character in the classic film The Graduate.

  4. Aaron,

    Is your take that the model of parenting discussed in the article is benign or beneficial or just that it’s not really reasonable to draw the conclusions the author does?

    I’ve had some opportunity to observe at the high school level the short terms fruits of some parenting styles, and they do seem to vary as much with the individual kid’s personality and character as they do by parenting method, so I don’t necessarily believe that one style particularly ruins kids. But the child-happiness-centered, helicopter, self-esteem protecting, (whatever it’s appropriate to call the methods the article addressed) demands so much more from other people, it seems to me, that even if the results for the kids were the same, it’s a “worse” method.

    People put a lot of time and effort into generating those ineffective cocoons, and if nothing else, attempting to build them sends signals to the kids that they are entitled to expect other people to protect them from even inconsequential failures. That may be a goofy signal to send.

  5. Allison says:

    Aaron, I like your alternative theory, but there’s an even easier one. Today’s therapists blame parents the same way they always did. When the patient before said “mom and dad were busy, and distant” the therapist’s answer was as you gave it; when the patient now says “no no, mom and dad are my best supporters” the therapist’s answer is “you just think that, but in fact, you are not yet capable of seeing the manipulation your parents performed on you for their own emotional needs.”

    Helicopter parents get a lot of flack. Funny though, they are the only people modeling to their children how they should deal with difficult people in authority . or unreasonable people in positions of disproportionate power. The expectation that children are going to learn to navigate the social structures of big bureaucracies like schools, universities, health care systems, state organizations, or financial institutions on their own through trial and error is ludicrous. Yes, children should learn to handle disappointment and failure in their personal lives. That’s a totally different issue than learning to handle the gatekeepers whose frivolous or capricious decisions have far reaching consequences. I don’t see most helicopter parents as protecting self esteem. I see most helicopter parents as refusing to let their kid get steamrolled by a system that cares not one whit about the individual.

  6. Alison,

    I don’t think your definition of helicopter parent is the typical one. Most non-helicopter parents refuse to let their kids get steamrolled by the system as well. It’s not a leave-your-child-to-the-wolves or manage-every-detail-of-your-child’s life kind of choice.

    As I think most people use the term, helicopter parents hover all the time and refuse to allow their children to suffer what most regard as normal setbacks and frequently try to game the system in favor of their kids at the expense of others, with no regard for fairness of objective qualifications. (Being a parent isn’t a license to victimize others just because your kid is involved. You’re still bound by the rules of fair play and/or the golden rule.)

    I think many also use it to refer to those parents who continue to handle tasks for offspring long past the point the young person should have learned to handle the task (or in areas of life where it was never appropriate. Your mom should probably never talk to HR on your behalf, unless maybe you are in the hospital.)

    I’d also suggest the having someone else ride in and take care of your problems for you isn’t actually modeling how to deal with difficult people in authority, at least with any problem that doesn’t require a lawyer. I don’t think a parent who coached a kid in dealing with problems but had the offspring actually handle the problem would be labeled a helicopter parent. I’m thinking of older kids, though. I hardly think you can send in a kindergartner to meet with the principal about scheduling on his own.

    I think most people believe you can be an involved parent without being a helicopter parent.