When Help Is Harmful: Thoughts on “Snowplow” Parenting

The recent news about wealthy/celebrity parents paying to have their children accepted into colleges via fraudulent methods has gotten me thinking. My first thought is, “Wait, isn’t this old news? I thought we all knew this was going on.” My secondthought is the stuff of this post: a thread around the larger concept of parents’ removing obstacles out of the way of their children, sometimes called “snowplow parenting.” What happens when parents move from being a background source of support and guidance to a front-line player in their children’s affairs? When does help become harmful? 

I’ve spent the bulk of my career as a therapist working with adolescents and their parents around issues of individuation (essentially, a young person discovering their own self and identity), risk-taking, boundaries and rules, and exploration. The teenage and young adult years are a potentially fascinating period filled with wonder, discovery, and potential. I’ve largely noticed that when young people are given room to find themselves and learn to trust in their own capabilities, they often grow into empowered, assured, unique adults.

I’ve also observed that when young people are not trusted, or when too much is done for them, they internalize the message that they are not capable and cannot trust themselves to create their own identity or success. When this happens, sadly, some young people become stuck. They bloom very late, or not at all, never having discovered their own promise, skills, talents, or interests, taking cues from their peers and their parents as to who and how they should be, because they lack their own point of reference. At best, they become copycats of who they think they “should” be. At worst, they might become depressed, anxious, and have difficulty functioning day-today.

When parents perform on their children’s behalf (in large ways like the celebrity parents in the news, but also in small ways, like parents that complete their children’s homework), their kids are robbed of the chance to learn, grow, make mistakes, and test out their own abilities. While they may be shielded from their weaknesses (which are important to be aware of as they become adults), they are also unable to fully experience their own strengths and gifts. This is perhaps the saddest element of snowplow parenting: the kids are never given the chance to see what they might be able to do for themselves. They might be scholars, or business prodigies, or creative geniuses, or natural empaths, but if their gift is not met with a challenge that allows it to surface, the kids might never realize that the gift exists at all.

Teens and young adults are generally resourceful and resilient. This developmental stage is all about imagination, exploration, and ideas! Obstacles and challenges do not necessarily need to be viewed as scary or negative. For a young person, an obstacle or challenge (like not getting into a particular school, or not making an athletic team, or finding out that school just isn’t their thing at all!) presents a great opportunity to find out where they dofit, excel, and feel comfortable. Why wouldn’t we want our children to learn this about themselves? Do we want them socializing with people that are wrong for them, in a job that is wrong for them, in a city that is wrong for them, because they never found out where they actually fit in? A young person that has no interest in school does not belong in an elite college, and anyway, why would we want that for them? That is not an environment in which they will thrive. Why not give them the opportunity to find their own place, to decide what is right for them?

When kids are given the opportunity to become themselves, they will find their own way. This will aid them in becoming authentic, healthy, thriving adults. Let’s provide them with that chance.

Originally posted on my blog, Common Humanity, at Psych Central.com. To read more, visit https://blogs.psychcentral.com/common-humanity/


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