Helicopter parenting is ruining youth sports and harming kids

When mother-of-three Heather Behrend’s eldest son, Jake, 15, started playing baseball, she got active herself. Very committed.

“I would go train with him and criticize what he was doing — every swing he was making,” recalled Behrends, 43.

Behrends wanted Jake to do well, and when the Denver-based founder of parenting blog Made In A Pinch saw her son struggling to get better, she paid for private coaching. However, the more she pushed her son to perform at his best, the more Jake’s passion for the sport waned.

“I felt like I was forcing him to go to practice,” Behrends told the Post. “At one point it felt like he was doing what he didn’t want to do even though he loved the sport. It felt like a chore to him.”

A new study by Italian researchers, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that while enrolling children in sport can benefit their development, parents should avoid being overly critical or overly concerned participate as they play the game.

Denver mom Heather Behrends realized her efforts to help son Jake excel at the sport were having the opposite effect.
Denver mom Heather Behrends realized that her efforts to help son Jake excel in baseball were having the opposite effect.

“Our results suggest that excessive parental involvement can put pressure on children, who would prefer parental involvement marked by praise and understanding,” the study authors write. “It needs a balance”

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Jake Schwartzwald, director at Everything Summer, a New York City-based educational consultancy, agrees. Parents typically have their children’s best interests at heart, he said, but can run into trouble once they start micromanaging the experience.

“All parents enroll children in sports or activities with good intentions. [But] Sometimes a line is crossed where parents suddenly get more involved or invested in the outcome as opposed to why they signed their kids up for the sport in the first place,” Schwartzwald explained.

“Very rarely will these extra levels of pressure have any positive mental health effects,” he added.

There are physical effects too. There have been a number of overuse injuries in youth sports, spurred in part by overzealous parenting. A 2015 survey in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that 60% of all Tommy John surgeries in the US are performed on patients between the ages of 15 and 19.

And unbalanced behavior – even threats of violence – by parents at games has led to some coaches quitting.

Luz Casquejo Johnston, 51, a San Francisco mom, took a relaxed approach when it came to her son’s involvement in sports.

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“We just wanted him to have a good time and develop his passions,” said Casquejo Johnston, a former principal and assistant professor at Saint Mary’s College of California.

Parents need to be careful not to get too involved in the game, experts say.
Parents need to be careful not to get too involved in the game, experts say.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

And when he failed to form his high school baseball team, he was able to turn to another sport – football – without feeling like a failure.

“At some point their sports career is over and they have to be versatile to define themselves,” said Casquejo Johnston. “Many parents have unrealistic expectations of what is possible for their athletes, and what happens is they squeeze life out of a childhood passion, which then becomes a source of friction and stress and can end up in a strained relationship.”

Jason Sacks, president of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a national nonprofit dedicated to character building in youth sports, says parents aren’t supposed to worry about winning or losing. Instead, he advises them to be supportive — without hovering.

“Youth sport has become a win-at-all-cost mentality, [but] Nobody wins when parents are too involved,” Sacks said, noting that parents can become increasingly competitive when athletic scholarships are at stake.

Johnson's teenage son switched from baseball to football without feeling like a failure, she said.
A playful approach helped Luz Casquejo Johnston’s teenage son make the transition from baseball to football without feeling like a failure, she said.
Courtesy of Casquejo Johnston

When a child sees that a parent is visibly dissatisfied when a coach gives them feedback, it can make them feel like they have failed the parent.

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“It’s bad enough when kids make a mistake on the field – they look down, they look at the coach and they look at their parents in the stands and when they feel that pressure from the parents it takes them out of it game.” he said.

Another potentially harmful parenting game? Stand up for their children – instead of letting them voice their own concerns. Parents often ask that their children get more playtime, when instead they should encourage one-on-one conversations between children and their coaches to ask, “What can I do to improve?” Sacks explained.

Expert Jason Sacks says when children see their parents' disappointment in their performance, it can damage the child's self-esteem.
Expert Jason Sacks explains that when a child sees disappointment in a parent’s athletic performance, it can hurt their self-esteem.
Getty Images/Cavan Images RF

“When a kid graduates from high school, maybe they’re going to college or the job market where their parents won’t be around, so they have to get used to standing up for themselves,” Sacks continued.

Meanwhile, Behrends finally found a more appropriate distance to cheer for her son.

“I realized he just had to fight his way through,” she said. “Once he started doing this on his own, he found it more fun than I let go. He’s actually improved more than when I was with him.”

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