Protect without overprotecting

Protect without overprotecting
Small “fails” are opportunities to learn. How to protect without being overprotective?

The news sometimes reports unfortunate events that give us the impression that danger is almost omnipresent, although this is not necessarily true. Without us realizing it, this causes us to feel more fearful for our children. In such a context, it can be difficult to know whether our approach to protection and safety is adequate.

The difference between protecting and overprotecting

Your child needs protection, but not overprotection. Protecting means meeting the developmental needs of your toddler such as their need for safety, love, bonding, and stimulation. To meet their need for safety, the implementation of clear, coherent, consistent, and therefore predictable rules is necessary.

Conversely, overprotecting a child means doing for them things they could do on their own, or attempting to shield them from the slightest injuries or sorrows. For example, taking your 2-year-old child in your arms when going up or down the stairs is a form of overprotection. Showing them how to do things, such as walking up or down the steps while staying by their side to give them a hand if necessary is a good way to protect your toddler without being overprotective.

The same is true when they are learning to tie up their shoes. You can do it at first, when your child is too young to be able to do it on their own, but once they’ve grown up a little, show them how to tie their shoes and let them try. Stay with them to provide directions and assist as needed until the day they learn to do it alone.

Why are some parents overprotective?

Many parents are overprotective of their child because they want to spare them from having to face difficult or stressful situations. Other parents may be overprotective because of their own anxious or worried personality, their own experiences, or the way they were raised. In some cases, overprotective parents have experienced a serious and traumatic event in the past.

As much as possible, ignore alarmist opinions and use your judgment to distinguish real dangers from harmless threats. This could be difficult if you suffer from anxiety. Fact checking can then help you realize that your fears, sometimes irrational, are not necessarily true. Talking with loved ones or people you trust can also help you take a step back to take a more objective look at the situation.

Consequences of overprotecting your child

Overprotecting your child will cause them to feel dependent on you, which can hinder the development of their autonomy. For example, if you still spoon feed a child who is able to eat on their own, they might end up thinking they can’t eat if you are not present.

In addition, by preventing your child from doing certain things or facing certain unpleasant situations, you send them the message that you do not believe in their abilities. Even if you have good intentions, overprotecting your child can give them the impression they are incompetent.

The importance of exploring and making mistakes

Enfant qui développe son autonomie

From 9 months of age to 3 or 4 years old, your child is curious, very active, and rummages through everything, learning a lot from all their findings. For example, they will observe the shapes, textures, and noises things make when they drop them on the ground, etc. These discoveries are essential for developing their intelligence.

For this reason, let your toddler freely explore their environment, for example, by allowing them access to a specific drawer or cabinet that does not contain dangerous objects (protective approach), rather than locking all drawers and cabinets to avoid any possible danger (overprotective approach). Organizing the environment helps to promote safe exploration.

You might also be tempted to overprotect your toddler by preventing them from making mistakes or from accounting for their mistakes so they don’t feel diminished. Making mistakes and finding solutions to correct them allows your child to learn and become responsible.

For example, if your toddler spills milk while filling their glass, kindly offer to help clean it. This teaches your child that cleaning is a normal process after making a mess. When they become aware of their clumsiness, they will start seeking new strategies to avoid having to clean after themselves. This allows them to develop their intelligence and knowledge.

Let them make mistakes, but help them understand the mistakes. For example, say: “Why do you think the milk spilled on the floor? What should you do to ensure that next time you pour all the milk in the glass?” 

Allow your child to do a task if they tell you they are able to do it, even if the result may be imperfect. If they want to get dressed on their own, the colours of their clothes might not always match, but instead of placing too much importance on such minute details, rejoice in their new skills.

Similarly, if you witness a conflict between your child and one of their friends, it may want to intervene immediately, as seeing your child feeling sad, disappointed, or angry is not a pleasant experience. But, these emotions are part of life and your child must learn little by little to recognize, express, and manage them on their own.

Instead of trying to resolve the conflict, listen to hear how the children try to resolve their issues, and intervene if necessary. For example, you might encourage them to say what they didn’t like about the situation from which the conflict arose.

Free play with an element of risk

Jeu libre et risqué

Parents who see their child take certain small risks when playing can also push them to adopt an overprotective approach. However, free play with an element of risk is beneficial, among other reasons for developing autonomy, self-esteem, sense of competence, creativity, etc.

In addition, preventing a reckless child from experiencing riskier activities actually increases their desire to do them, and as a result they might find ways to do these activities when the parents are not around, which is not desirable for his safety. For this reason, it is better to allow some freedom to your child, under your guidance and supervision so you can intervene in case of real danger.

Here’s what you can do to protect your child during free play without being overprotective:

  • Set clear rules on what is allowed and what is prohibited.
  • Tell your child they must ask you for permission before performing a stunt (e.g., before climbing over the module in the park).
  • Stay close to your child so you can react if they need you.
  • Remind your child that you are there if they suddenly feel afraid or need help getting out of a risky situation.

When parents do not share the same vision

It is rare that both parents share exactly the same vision when it comes to educating their child. Do not worry if your partner is more or less protective of your toddler than you are. Most of the time, the parents’ different ways of doing things complement each other. What really matters is to respect each other’s differences and not discuss these issues in front of your child. Otherwise, your toddler could feel insecure and pressured to choose between the two parents.
To find common ground on what constitutes acceptable risk taking, see our fact sheet Finding common ground on risk tolerance (in French).

Things to keep in mind

  • Overprotecting your child will cause them to feel dependent on you, which can harm the development of their autonomy.
  • A child learns many things through exploring and making mistakes, which helps develop their intelligence.
  • Preventing a child from experiencing even the slightest injury or sorrow is not recommended.


Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Stéphanie Deslauriers, psychoeducator
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: October 2022.


Photos: Gibson, GettyImages/PeopleImages and Elena Kurkutova


Useful links and resources

Note: Hyperlinks to other sites are not updated on a continuous basis. Thus, some links may not work. In such case, use the search tools to find specific information.

  • ARON, Elaine. Parents hypersensibles : comment faire de l’émotivité un atout. Montréal, Éditions de l’Homme, 2020, 296 p.
  • CANADIAN PUBLIC HEALTH ASSOCIATION. Risky play is essential for child development. 2016.
  • BERNÈCHE, Dominique. Les belles combines : astuces géniales pour famille d’aujourd’hui. Laval, Saint-Jean Éditeur, 2021, 240 p.
  • DESLAURIERS, Stéphanie. Le bonheur d’être un parent imparfait. Laval, Saint-Jean Éditeur, 2017, 192 p.
  • PARACHUTE. Unstructured outdoor play and risky play. 2022.
  • RADIO-CANADA. Émission Médium large. Parents d’enfants casse-cous : table ronde, 2017.

Children’s books

  • OLDLAND, Nicholas. Le castor qui travaillait trop fort. Markham, Éditions Scholastic, 2011, 32 pp.
  • OLDLAND, Nicholas. L’orignal qui avait la frousse. Markham, Éditions Scholastic, 2010, 32 pp.
  • SCHOENBORN, Mélina. Bob le bobo. Montréal, Éditions la courte échelle, 2020, 24 p.