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How Much Protection of Adult Children Is Too Much?

By Viktoria Vidali October 28, 2023 Family

It is universally agreed that parents possess an elemental instinct to protect their children. Even before the moment of birth, and thereafter throughout their lives, children animate this instinct, which over time settles so profoundly in parents that it unconsciously becomes a default response long after children have entered adulthood.

As young children reach maturity and assume greater personal responsibility, active parental protection naturally wanes, as it should. To be sure, finding equilibrium in the parental protective instinct is critical to maintaining a healthy relationship with your adult children.

Mothering Our Children

We would all concur that the suffocating (hovering) attention of a “mother hen” is detrimental to a child’s development and has the effect of establishing a relationship of harmful psychological dependency.

When parents do everything for their children, regardless of the fact that the children are quite capable of independent agency, children have little opportunity to test their limits and build self-confidence.

It is important to intentionally determine when parental assistance is truly needed and when it has become habitual. A friend once joked, “I spent 20 years telling my son what to do and the next 20 learning how to not tell him what to do!”

As parents, we would love to jumpstart our children’s learning by being able to directly transmit our greatest insights to them so they don’t make the same mistakes we did, but as wisdom would have it, some life lessons need to be viscerally experienced to be truly integrated as deep knowing.

On the other extreme, while children are still growing mentally, emotionally, and physically, it would be a form of neglect to leave them entirely on their own to figure out the complexities of life. After all, a manual of operating instructions was not provided to any of us!

Looking for Balance

Where does parents’ desire to protect their adult children find a healthy balance? How you respond to these two questions will shed some light on the answer.

Will Your Protective Behavior Complicate an Already Stressful Situation?

As a hypothetical, let’s suppose that your daughter is having difficulty in her marriage. When she confides in you (assuming you’re one of her parents), you react by giving a barrage of gratuitous advice and your opinion on how to fix it.

While she’s struggling to decide whether to divorce or stay in the relationship, in this scenario she’s also sensing your stress at the possibility of a breakup in the family. Being hyper-attuned to your reactions, her problem has become weightier because now she feels the need as a daughter to alleviate your apprehension as well, which is one reason adult children often don’t open up about their troubles: they want to spare their parents worry.

On the contrary, if you can remain calm and learn to be an effective active listener – joining the conversation with a desire to understand how she’s feeling and putting yourself in her shoes in order to relate empathically – you will be providing a place of refuge where she can sort though her emotions candidly in an atmosphere of love.

No judgment, simply listening and asking questions that rephrase what she’s said for clarification or inquiring how she feels about what she’s conveyed.

Will Your Protective Help Deprive Your Children of Personally Experiencing an Important Life Lesson?

Another hypothetical. Your son is very good at what he does and is succeeding financially, but he’s overworked and unhappy. In exasperation, he conceives the idea that becoming an artist (with no art background) and living off the grid in a remote area (with no previous experience of what that might mean) will change his life for the better.

Making such a move could bring with it a number of significant changes, potentially expansive or depressing: good fortune or impoverishment, the uncovering of a hidden talent or failure, new-found courage or loss of self-respect, peace of mind or loneliness. He’s increasingly adamant about actualizing his plan notwithstanding the acknowledged risks.

How Will You as His Parent Respond?

Again, with active listening. When he expresses his current frustrations, you might ask if he’s thought about taking a respite – is he suffering from burnout? Has he considered taking a leave of absence for a trial run with his new idea? Has he entertained enrolling in art classes to test the waters?

What you would do in his situation is irrelevant unless he asks your opinion. Your help in exploring possibilities will be beneficial only if you are not pushing your own agenda. The final decision will be his – you respect his right to self-determination – as will its denouement.

Though you may have doubts about the direction his life is taking or quietly be cheering his departure from a profession that never suited him, you cannot direct or control his choices, but you can offer your love, a listening ear, and your wisdom in trusting the perennial value of lived experience.

Your Own Life Balance

Finally, maintaining a place of balance in your own life that puts your adult children at ease will be a source of comfort for them. Being that haven of good sense, compassion, and emotional support that all families need creates an atmosphere of security and reinforces the understanding that they can share their lives with you willingly and freely.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Which type of parent are you – the overbearing or the empathetic? Is it easy or difficult for you to hold your advice and just listen? Has there been a situation where you really wanted to provide advice but thought better of it? Are there life lessons you would have rather saved your children from?

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Greetings – Thank you for this, Victoria.
I am not a parent, but I was raised by a couple of them, so I read your article from the point of view of your intended target, the parent. I then re-read it from my point of view, the child.
One of your comments, which I quote here, really hit home: “When parents do everything for their children, regardless of the fact that the children are quite capable of independent agency, children have little opportunity to test their limits and build self-confidence.”
Mom and Dad had vastly different approaches to parenting, and compelling me to “test my limits.” It is no exaggeration that my mother’s style was an amalgam of Joan Crawford, Lila Wingo in Pat Conroy’s novel “The Prince of Tides,” and Mary Tyler Moore’s character in the movie “Ordinary People.”  Dad, by contrast, was more of the Ward Cleaver type.
One day, when I was in high school, my mother, in a fit of her trademark domestic malevolent despotism, glared at me and said, “Don’t ever depend on me for anything!” And she meant it. This is not to say that she did not dutifully fulfill the job of being a mother, it’s just that she, like Joan. Lila, and Mary, wasn’t very good at it. For better of for worse, her heavy-handedness, figuratively and literally, left scars. And the greatest irony is that everything she had she owed to her own complete dependence on my father.
Dad was of the “gently swing a velvet hammer” school of parenting.   He provided for me, gave me fatherly advice, braided me up and dressed me down when appropriate. He seemed to feel confident that with proper guidance on his part, but left to my own devices, I had the potential to be the best that I could be. I took all of that a little too much for granted. It was only when I tested dad’s own “limits” by conducting my college life in a fatefully irresponsible manner,  that he felt compelled to administer a solid dose of “tough love.” “I’ve got your sisters to provide for – you’re on your own.” And he. like my mother, meant it.  But whereas her rejection was just business as usual, dad’s terse “adios” startled me, like a cold, hard, slap in the face. And it couldn’t have been easy for him to take such a course of action,
It was only then that I seriously began to take inventory of my life, of my bad decisions, and of what inner resources I possessed to confront the big, bad world and try to set things right. In the process, I met my own worst adversary: myself.
In disowning me, Dad left me with a precious gift, to which you alluded: the opportunity to test my limits … – I could either charge full-steam ahead into the daunting storm of my own conjuring. or cower before it … Kinda scary … I chose option one, and discovered that indeed “I had it in me,” to turn my ship around. And I did.
But it was really Dad’s sobering bombshell that must be credited for blasting me into the realm of self-realization,   

Dad and I soon reconciled, although “reconciliation” is a bit misleading, since in truth Dad may have cast me adrift, but he was ever there watching me from the shore. I regret that I never uttered these words while he was still with us  but, like a prayer, I repeat them now, out loud, every day: “Dad, you were right.” 

Viktoria Vidali

Appreciate your sharing this personal story, David. Your father’s decision was not an easy one, especially because as parents we hope that our behaviors on behalf of our children do not harm them in any way. In this case, your father took that risk, which in my mind meant that he had weighed in carefully and leaned toward believing that you’d make a remarkable comeback!

Last edited 5 months ago by Viktoria Vidali

Thanks for sharing your story.

Emmie Norton

I also want to force my children to do a video chat once a month. I have 2 children and they could alternate. I haven’t put it into action yet but I did mention it to my son. My daughter is a trickier proposition by maybe soon. I really do not think that I am asking too much. We have had a least a decade of not doing this.

Viktoria Vidali

Emmie, are they aware of how much this video contact means to you?

Lisa Rice

And what about the parents who can’t seem to move their 32 year old child out of their house? Listening hasn’t worked for them. Nor have contracts of what he must do or threats. Namely bc they always seem to turn around and give in to whatever excuse the sone has given this time.

Viktoria Vidali

Lisa, a lot would depend on why he’s finding it preferable to stay. Does he have anxiety or fear or is he making excuses for himself?

Viktoria Vidali

Much would depend on the reason he is deciding to stay there. Is he anxious or afraid to be alone?


Excellent advice, I am striving to not offer solutions but ask expanding questions. Also, I just started forcing my 30yo to call, not text, when something is important. She doesn’t like this but it’s improving communication.

Viktoria Vidali

Hi Shannon. Hearing the voice of our children allows for a special kind of connection … there is so much to tone! Happy the article was helpful.

The Author

Viktoria Vidali is a published writer, educator, photographer, and poet. Her love of children, music, travel, metaphysics, and the natural world inspire her work, as do vivid memories of her exhilarating 40,000 nautical-mile sailing voyage into the Eastern Pacific. Please contact Viktoria at: or at Poetry For Living (

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