How do I deal with my overprotective parents?

mandy
asks:
So I’m 16 years old, and my parents are so overprotective of me, since I’m a petite female. Even before the whole COVID-19 situation, I couldn't go anywhere without my parents or my older brothers. When my brothers were my age, they could go hang out with friends without parents. And I can’t! There was this one time where my dad’s car wasn’t working and I asked my parents if I could walk with my friends, who live next to me. They got mad at me, saying they didn’t know my friends' parents, even though they don’t socialize with my friends' parents. So I spent like 3 days walking with my dad. I hated it to be honest. Another recent event happened in early March, where I wanted to go to the mall with my friends. It was my first time hanging out with friends, that wasn’t a birthday or anything. My mom wanted to chaperone us, so my friends decided their moms had to come too. My friends said that they were scared to say something dumb in front of my mom. I asked my parents why they were overprotective. My mom said that I’m her only daughter and then my dad said that he’s paranoid that something will happened to me. Seriously, they are ruining my social life, only letting me hang out with my friends at school. The whole mall trip was canceled because my friend got grounded. Then my parents badmouthed them, and my friends were upset about it. Honestly, I wish I have normal caring parents, but not like this. So during the COVID-19 quarantine, my mom made a joke that I’m gonna party in college and my dad was talking about how there’s jobs for that. But how am I gonna survive college, if I don’t know how to cross the street? Or have social skills besides college? I heard that overprotected kids are more likely to fail in life or be codependent. I don’t want to fall into that category because of my parents. I don’t know how to be more responsible for them to trust me. Why don't my parents trust me?
sam w replies:

I feel you, Mandy! I'm a woman whose adult height is five feet and when I was 16 I weighed about a hundred pounds soaking wet. I suspect (but cannot prove) my parents were a little more protective of me than they would have been if I was a boy, but I have to give credit where credit is due. They made sure I had the tools and the confidence to navigate the world as a petite woman. I ended up being a bit like this mongoose: tiny, but quite willing and capable when it came to holding my own.

Small, furious animals aside, I pulled your question because fear is a really present theme: both the fear your parents hold that's causing them to act this way, and the fear you have of being overprotected. And right now, fear is way more of a presence in most people's lives, thanks to COVID-19.

So, let's talk about fear, and what things actually work when it comes to managing our own fears and the fears others have for us.

When we think about fear, it helps to remember that fear is something that evolved in humans to protect us. In its best form, it keeps us from stepping into oncoming traffic or going towards the thing growling in the dark forest. In its worst form, it scrambles our ability to gauge risks and lets our feelings-brain override our facts-brain. Which means one of the ways to deal with fear is to pull it out into the light and have a look at it.

Your fears about what will happen as you move into adult life are easier to address, so let's look at them first.

There's a common belief that if people come from controlling or protective families, they'll go completely wild at the first taste of freedom that comes with college. While some people may indeed do just that, it's not an automatic action. It's a choice. If you wanted to cut loose and party every night in college, that's a choice you can make (though I don't recommend it), just like you can choose to go to lectures, or sleep in, or pull an all-nighter to study.

Beyond that, a lot of the skills you need to get through daily life in college and beyond are things you can practice even with overprotective parents. For instance, if you're not already doing chores like laundry or cooking, now is the time to start. We also encourage young people to start taking the lead on things like doctor's appointments before they leave for school, as a way of learning how to navigate those systems without the help of a parent or gaurdian.

As far as social skills and interactions go, you won't be as behind as you assume. The shift from high school to college, and from college into the next phase of adult life is tricky for most people. New places, more freedom, and more people mean that everyone is adjusting at the same time. You'll be learning right along with everyone else. I'll add that many schools and organizations, including we here at Scarleteen, put out guides to help students navigate the different elements of college, from eating on a budget to making new friends.

Now let's dig into the larger issue: the fact that your parents have jumped the line from "reasonable concern" to "over-protective." You ask if there's a way to make them trust you more, but from what you're describing their actions are less about what you do and more about what could happen to you.

I agree with you that your gender is playing a role here, since you mention your brothers didn't have these same issues; you're a woman, which statistically puts you at greater risk of certain forms of violence. You're small, which, in your parents eyes and maybe even yours, makes you an appealing target to someone looking to do harm.


I'm approaching your question from the position that your parents are overprotective but ultimately well-meaning. In some cases, though, such tight restrictions on your movement and ability to socialize are signs of abuse. If you read through these signs and see a lot you recognize, your next step is to make a safety plan.

Neither of those traits are within your control (or their control), and control plays a big role in how we experience fear. Part of why the pandemic is so freaking scary is that the vast majority of us feel as though we have no control over how it unfolds. I'm more scared of flying than driving, even though my odds of dying in a car crash are way higher than dying in a plane crash, because I have some control over my car but none over an airplane.

And in your case, your parents have very little control over the things in this world that might hurt you. So they're focusing on the factor they can control: you.

I say this not to excuse them, but because understanding the probable source of their fear might help you address it. Because while their fear isn't going to automatically prevent you from having a normal life, it isn't doing them or you any favors.

One of the weirder things about being a person with an anxiety disorder in the midst of this pandemic is watching other people be forced to to handle the constant din of fear--the voice in their heads going "what if what if what if" about every bad outcome--that's been the background noise of my life for years. That constant fear is exhausting and sometimes it can exhaust you to the point that you stop being able to gauge risk well at all, including things that you actually DO need to worry about. If your parents are functionally playing the role of the "what if" voice, it gets progressively easier (and understandably tempting) to tune them out. After all, if they think everything is dangerous, how can you know when they're actually picking up on a risk you don't see?

There are things to be afraid of in this world: pandemics, people who view their own desires as overriding others' right to live safely, giant centipedes (okay, maybe that one is just me). It's enough to make you curl up in bed and never leave, or keep the ones you love on a tight leash in hopes that nothing bad will ever happen to them. But that's just not sustainable. Instead, we have to learn how to evaluate and deal with risk.

As a sex educator, I spend a lot of time talking about risk, because it's an inescapable part of sex and relationships. So I'm going to give you an abridged version of the process Heather, our founder and Executive Director, outlines for how to consider risk when making a decision:

  • Think about the potential risks and benefits of an action.
  • Consider how realistic any given outcome is. If there are risks, are there realistic things you can do to lessen them?
  • Weigh likelihood of the risks and rewards until you make a choice.

You may have to guide your parents through those steps at first. In an ideal world you, the young person, would not be the one stuck doing that, but this is a first step in you advocating for greater independence.

Let's take the example of your friend's house. Their objection was they don't know your friend's parents. Why? What are they actually afraid of happening? Do they think your friend's parents will hurt you? Let you do drugs? Knowing what the worry is can help all three of you figure out how to approach the concern going forward. Also, sometimes saying a fear out loud can help us recognize whether it's realistic or not.  So even just having this conversation might help them notice that whatever they're afraid of just isn't likely.

You may have to start small. Convincing your parents that it's okay for you to go out with a group of friends unsupervised for a few hours is going to have to come before going to, say, a concert without a chaperone (this is all in the future for now anyway, given social distancing). The more times you have those small adventures in freedom with nothing going haywire, the more soothed their fears might become.

Lastly, are there (reasonable) things you could do to help both you and them feel more comfortable with you going out in the world? Would you, and they, feel better if you took some self-defense classes? What kinds of check-ins will give them a chance to relax their worry while still letting you move about the world? For instance, can you agree to texting them when you get somewhere safe or when you're on your way home so they know when to expect you? There is lots of room between your parents having no idea where you are or if you're safe and you never being able to go anywhere without them, and if they're willing to engage with you in good faith, I think you can find it.

In a more general sense, I would talk to your parents from this angle: you are rapidly approaching adulthood, which means you will shortly be out in the world on your own. In the short term, monitoring you so closely may feel like the way to keep you safe. In the long term, however, as you yourself identified, it's keeping you from learning how to navigate the world on your own. If they want to help you thrive as an adult, they need to give you the space now to practice evaluating and taking risks on your own, while they're still right there to bail you out if needed. They also need to practice learning to trust you and be okay with you being out in the world without their supervision, because for the majority of your life that's exactly where you're going to be.

Hopefully, through these conversations, your parents will realize that easing up on that urge to overprotect is the choice that has the best results for everyone. That's not to say they can't, or shouldn't, still worry about from time to time, or that you should run full-tilt into dangerous scenarios without fear. Fear is helpful if managed effectively; I hope your parents find a way to manage their own fears that allows you to feel safe rather than smothered.

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