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  Chapter 14 from
Being and Becoming
A guide for better living, parenting and teaching by a veteran educator and therapist

By Dr. Jacob Mermelstein 


Other Available Chapters
23 


The Overinvolved Parent: Anxiety and How It Is Learned

Underlying every neurosis or emotional disturbance there is anxiety -- a gnawing sensation of fear, of panic, or expectation of impending doom. Childhood and adolescence are periods of stress and anxiety, as the child gives up total dependency for independence, exchanging the “safety” of being nurtured by others for self-determination and self-sufficiency. Residuals of these anxieties remain with us through life. In moderation, they have distinct value in that one learns to forestall danger and protect oneself from various situations that may endanger one, physically or psychologically. Thus, for example, some anxiety in anticipation of a scholastic test will energize the individual to study and prepare. Too much anxiety, however, will make for panic, leading to a variety of reactions that are in sum total regressive and/or counterproductive. Excessive anxiety may becloud thinking and cause confusion, thus impeding optimal intellectual functioning. On the other hand, it may mobilize the individual, making him work hard and enhance functioning, but create excessive stress that will cost him dearly in total happiness and living. Finally, some individuals may attempt to escape the intolerable situation, invoking neurotic defenses that will lead to a chronic state of anxiety that is excessive and unrealistic. Such defenses will then be utilized whenever anxiety is encountered and thus make for the development of a neurotic personality.

Anxiety comes about in a myriad of ways that would require volumes to describe, and about which all is not really known at this time. Nor is it likely that the origin of human anxiety in general, or that of an individual in particular, will ever lend itself to be clearly traced. Yet there are some factors known to be responsible for this crippling condition that robs us of joy in everyday life. Children who are loved conditionally -- if they behave or do as the parents demand -- develop deep insecurities and anxiety. Competitive homes or overly striving ones, or those in which sibling relationships lend themselves to excessive rivalry, are similarly anxiety producing. Then there are homes where “the child comes first,” where life revolves around the young, where every need is promptly met -- and in these homes are frequently produced the most anxious children and neurotic characters of all.

Caring for one’s child demands an involved parent who is physically present and free enough from personal conflict to be emotionally close. The two, however (physical presence and emotional proximity), do not always go hand in hand. Indeed, there are homes where the parent is verily omnipresent, involving himself totally with the child’s physical needs -- his eating, sleeping, learning, and so forth -- yet remaining emotionally distant and psychologically nonsupportive. The damage that is generated in an overinvolved home stems from several sources.

The overinvolved parent finds meaning in life solely in the context of rearing his child. His life lacks purpose and he fails to find joy in anything but the child. He thus does not present a model for a satisfying existence the child could copy.

Overinvolved parents cannot be involved mates, so the marriage inevitably suffers, generating strife and constructing intolerable triangles where the child is pulled and pushed as his parents battle. The child then becomes a rival and a handy tool of parental warfare, seduced by one and rejected by the other.

Overinvolvement and Anxiety

The overinvolved home is an anxious home, because child rearing is all-consuming. The atmosphere bristles with a sense of urgency “to do for the child,” to be involved with his every activity, thought, and feeling. The child breathes and introjects this anxiety, this sense of urgency and intensity. Moreover, the overinvolved parent inevitably clashes with the child as he makes neurotic demands of him to comply, to be molded into the “perfect being.” The child is presented with intolerable choices and double-binding ambivalence: to comply because the ever-giving, sacrificial parent says so -- and remain dependent, or resist in order to become independent -- but risk losing parental love. In addition, child rearing becomes a chore -- with ever more attention given to the child’s structural (physical) needs, leaving little time for the vital emotional interaction that says, “All is well.” Most important are the unconscious signals that emanate from the overinvolved parent, that create in the child feelings of incompetence and anxiety.

An important feature of general anxiety is dread, a kind of an ever-expectant feeling of “When is the other shoe going to drop? What do I have to attend to now? What needs to be done to avert hurt or pain, physical or psychological?” Where does this come from? Imagine the child in his room -- reading, studying, playing, talking on the phone, or just relaxing. Now the front door opens; Mommy is home. The child has heard the door open; now he hears Mommy coming up the stairs. Now what? Does he continue doing whatever he is doing, and at most, Mommy will say, “Hi!”? Or does he go on alert and become expectant and hyper-alert? Will Mommy demand: “Why not study or go outdoors and play, or open the window or the light, or have some milk and cake, or ...?”

Yes! You Can Do It!

The infant attempting to feed himself, clumsily grasps the too large spoon, triumphantly calls out “M’self!” and inevitably misses the target -- his mouth. There is more cereal on his cheeks, on the table, and on the floor than in his mouth, but there is triumph in his smile and victory in his shout -- he has mastered. For this is his first successful attempt to master that which is imbedded in the matrix of the human organism: to do for oneself, to be competent and self-sufficient, to cope, and to master one’s environment.

The involved and talented parent looks on, approving of this “heroic” feat, paying no heed to the mess, to the unconsumed nourishment, and reinforces this behavior. She says to the child, unconsciously but clearly: “Yes, you can do it!” This scene is repeated thousands of times, as the parent permits the child to do what he can for himself in various settings. And the message is reinforced and imprinted: “You are competent, you can cope.”

The overinvolved parent, on the other hand, must save every precious morsel to nourish our tot. “No, you cannot feed yourself. I will do it for you. I will attend to your needs, and I will feed, clothe, teach, and nurture you.” Repeated again and again, the signal is clear: “You are incompetent. You are dependent on me. You cannot cope.” Additionally, the parent who has little joy in life now may derive “meaning” by being needed to raise and nurture the child.

Our tot matures and must venture forth into the “cold and dangerous world.” The parent must carefully weigh and measure, and trade physical safety for adventure and growth. The choice is indeed a difficult one. Parental protective instinct is on the side of safety: “Let us be sure. Why take unnecessary risks?”

The optimally involved parent uses prudence, balancing the physical risks against the emotional stunting that overconcern will surely cause. She prods and reassures the child to risk the unknown, to enlarge his life space and to grow without fear. This parent risks, and prays and hopes. And she is rewarded by building into the child the ability to face the challenges of life without undue anxiety and with a feeling of power -- that he can cope.

The overinvolved parent has no easy task. To begin with, her child is already timid, fearful, anxious, and afraid to go forth into the world, because he has never attempted to do so. The parent herself is overinvolved because of her own fears, apprehensions, and anxiety. And now she must let go -- but how? There is misgiving and trepidation as she halfheartedly allows the child to go out, never really cutting the cord, never signaling to the child that he is on his own, that he can do it. At best there are admonitions to be careful, to watch out, and to report in. The parent says to the child, the adolescent, and yes, even the adult offspring, as he embarks: “Call me when you get there.” What do these innocuous words say? They have but one meaning: “The world is dangerous. I am not assured that you can make it. I am afraid, and I do not trust you and your environment.” Repeated thousands of times in various situations, using a multitude of phrases and facial expressions of trepidation, the message is clear: “The world is to be feared. To venture forth is dangerous. Anxiety is a way of life.”

The Good Parent Is an Obsolete Parent

For the child to grow into a man (or woman) -- confident, self-sufficient, able to face the challenges of life without undue anxiety and with the feeling that he or she can cope -- the task of the parent is to slowly but surely cease being a parent. To do that is to give up control, to let go and signal the child: “You can do it on your own. You can conquer the world and need not fear.” To love the child, to be concerned with his welfare at all times, is crucial -- but not at the expense of emotional growth essential for life.

This does not come about by philosophical statements or words of encouragement. Self-sufficiency and freedom from anxiety grows in caring, but now overinvolved, homes. It is reinforced and imprinted onto the child's mind by hundreds of thousands of signals and messages, consciously and unconsciously, verbally and nonverbally. And it becomes imbedded into his psyche by parental attitudes, traits, and behaviors that say: “You can do it on your own. Yet you can always count on me.”

 
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