When ‘Clingy’ Parenting Becomes Almost Abusive

Published in The Observer 05.08.2012

By psychotherapist Phillip Hodson

Modern parenting seems to me in trouble when it comes to managing the boundaries between the generations. In some households, Mum and Dad pretend to be their children’s “best friends”. They may even become fans of the same boy bands or share a tent at Glastonbury. They splash cash and offer 24 hour catering. It’s even rumoured that – if begged – they’ll do homework or pass their child’s exams. All of which indicates to me there’s a crisis in Parentland.

Not that this applies to you, of course, although your sprog may soon be trogging off to college or Peru. September is the cruellest month for separation anxiety. And more often than not, it’s the parents who can’t bear the separation. We no longer feel we’re abandoning our children on campus but that they’ve abandoned us at home. And so we muddle the bounds, with a little help from technology.

En route from dropping them at uni, we text the darlings. Our messages are superficially comforting. Are they okay? Did we forget something? Have they got cash, cake and condoms? Will they be sure to Skype this evening? When shall we come for a visit? Do you want to put eight tickets for next year’s May Ball on our credit card? If you’re at all homesick, for god’s sake call. Please let everyone know on Facebook that you’ve temporarily re-located – with the stress ontemporarily – because we’re entering a major phase of complicated grief in a blind panic and we’re the ones who need the comforting! (I exaggerate but slightly).

In times past, of course, children would probably have cut their apron strings sooner. My own bid for personal freedom followed O-levels. At 16, I flounced out of my Cheshire home with one rucksack, a leaky umbrella and an indeterminate plan to become a Scottish crofter. I got as far as hitch-hiking to Carlisle before the rains pelted down and nobody would give me a lift. When I phoned home, my dad just said: “Where are you? I’ll be there”. I’m grateful to this day that he didn’t try to humiliate me. Next time, I crossed the border and stayed. A year after, I hitched to Instanbul and back. No, I didn’t phone home, I was trusted to send the odd postcard.

The prevailing wisdom of my parents was that children need a pinch of risk as much as vitamins. (Without it they will never learn a thing and probably turn into Howard Hughes, the once reckless aviator who ended his days encased in a latex tent with 22 inch fingernails). I am of course speaking about relative risk. I don’t personally hold with dumping your babies on mountains like the ancient Spartans to see if the wolves are partial to frozen steak.

Nor do I complain that after centuries of preferring horses to children we Britons have become more caring as parents who don’t stick minors up chimneys or birch their bums. I myself belong to an excellent charity called “Children are Unbeatable” dedicated to ending the right of parents to commit common assault on their young. But there’s caring and caring.

Consider the case of the black-headed gull – a pest in some eyes – but probably a better parent than the rest of us put together. Mother bird simply locks the larder once junior can fly, having attained an adult size and weight. The rule is simple – “No more regurgitated mackerel for you, my pet, find your own!” Days will pass while outraged child prods her with the cry of “Gimmee” like some stroppy teenager deprived of Broadband. But the young bird adapts. It has to. The law of our animal kingdom says there’s a time to grow up. A time that we as social animals sometimes seem determined to push into middle age.

Now all parents ‘fail’ in some sense. A noted shrink once told me: “A parent’s place is in the wrong”. No, I do not underestimate the challenges. But I do suggest that an overprotected child is a deprived one and if they find themselves in an arrested stage of development they should make a claim for psychological distress.

There’s evidence that our brains don’t think objectively until at least the age of 25 so you could claim it doesn’t greatly matter if our offspring are unsure of themselves till then. But the evidence from history suggests that a sterner environment is perfectly capable of training this undeveloped brain into well-intended social action from the early teens – whether that activity is becoming the head of the household like a child in modern Bangkok or fighting the fascists in the last world war, a teenage event in the majority of theatres.

So when the adolescents do depart, how can a helicopter parent come to terms with slowing their rotors and whirling less dervishly? First, you might take comfort from the fact that when your kids vanish, even though your heart is breaking, like an expensive boomerang I promise they’ll be back.

“When the boy moves out,” we used to say, and I imply no lack of love for my youngest, “I can stop working weekends and we could repaint the entire flat.” “New rugs!” shouted my partner deliriously. It also occurred to us that not worrying about our wombfruit pleasuring his playmate with mixed grills, all night movies and the spare mattress might in itself constitute a home improvement.

And so he left. Not yet 20 and gone to cohabit with his mischosen one on his Grandfather’s Minute Legacy. I felt down but not distraught. We passed happy days refurbishing everything. The new carpets were swish as an ice rink.

But half a year on, our prodigal hit the financial rocks, re-occupied his old quarters and while finalising a work of art, mainly in the bathroom sink, succeeded in scattering indelible pink ink from a leaky Tesco bag into the centre of the virgin Axminster.

Second, and far more importantly, separation is good and essential for you both. It’s truistic to state that children need to become independent decision-makers who learn from their own mistakes and failures. Otherwise, how will they manage to put your affairs in order on the day you die? Since you cannot promise to live forever, you have to learn to let them go.

But for your own sake (and to follow up this idea scan the works of that brilliant psychologist Erik Erikson) you need to deal with the ‘tasks’ of your very different stage-of-life.

These do not include getting down on the dancefloor with the kids but facing up to the fact that, as a parent, you are becoming unemployed and are confronted by a void of bereavement which you must confront. For as long as you cling to your children like a lifebelt YOU will cease to grow up.

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