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Are you guilty of snowplow parenting?

snowplow parenting

If you follow the news, you might have learned a new term in the past few weeks: “snowplow parenting.” You may have even looked in the mirror, gasped, and thought, “uh-oh...do I do that?”

Relax. It’s not too late. Let’s talk about what you can do to avoid becoming a snowplow parent—and if you suspect you might already be one, how you can stop.

So: what exactly is snowplow parenting? Well, whereas “helicopter parents” hover over their kids, waiting to swoop in and help with obstacles, snowplow parents go one step further: they clear the way before anything can even pop up. Snowplow parents keep an anxious eye on the future, removing anything—pain, difficulties or hardships—that stands in the way of their child’s success.


How snowplow parenting starts

The seeds of snowplow parenting are planted early. Up to a certain point, you’re the one responsible for knowing if your child is hungry or in pain. After all, she’s too young to communicate her needs, right? But there’s a fuzzy line as kids get older, and unfortunately, there’s no clear cut-off point that tells parents when it’s time to stop doing for them and start letting go.

Plus, there are more demands on children and families now than ever before. From morning activities, to school, to evening activities that stretch until bedtime, parents often become obstacle managers by default. Kids are over-committed; parents try to help them not be distressed. Anxiety builds as no one has the time they need to unwind.

With good intentions, parents end up doing things like leaving work to deliver a forgotten assignment to school. Or calling a teacher when their child gets a bad grade. Or texting their college-aged kid to make sure they wake up for class. (Yes, that really happens.)

 

How it affects kids

Parents mean well: it’s normal to want to protect your child from feeling distress or pain. And in the short term, snowplow parenting does seem to have its benefits. There’s no arguing that it reduces a child’s exposure to stressful life events—in the moment, at least.

But in the long term, snowplow parenting is anything but helpful. Even if you don’t mean to, snowplow parenting can send your child the message that you don’t believe they can handle problems on their own. It can rob kids of coping mechanisms, problem-solving skills and resilience: three big things everyone needs in order to manage their own mental health.

Eventually, your child will be an adult—and sooner or later, they’ll be faced with a situation you simply cannot handle for them. Not only could they be at a disadvantage if their peers already have coping skills, but they could end up internalizing their struggles, which can lead to anxiety and depression.

Whew! That’s a lot. Take a deep breath. If you suspect you might be guilty of snowplow parenting, there are plenty of ways to stop you in your tracks.

 

How to avoid becoming a snowplow parent:

  1. Think long-term. Stop and ask yourself: what do I want for my child in the future? Start when they’re young. Even if you’re sleep-training your baby, remind yourself that you’re giving them the gift of sleep. The gift of coping skills and resilience. Retrain your mind to take you from “I’m teaching them how to fail” to “I’m teaching them how to handle difficult things.”
  2. Commit to creating a well-rounded child. Most parents shoot for having a successful kid, and while achievements are great, the ultimate goal should be one who’s well rounded instead. One who’s happy and flexible, who’s able to make friends and deal with challenges.
  3. Start by taking small steps. Letting kids experience difficulty can be hard. Start small, when they’re young. Try playing a game, then encourage your child to remain calm if they lose. If they get upset, give them a moment to recover without stepping in. If you can learn to tolerate a small amount of your child’s distress, you’ll be able to tolerate more as they grow older.
  4. Validate your child’s feelings. Instead of trying to fix how they feel, try...well, not doing that. Learn to tolerate distress alongside your child by saying, “It’s hard to see you upset, but I know you’re going to be okay.”
  5. Allow natural consequences. Most actions have natural consequences, good or bad. Let your child figure out what those are by themselves so they know what they’re up against next time. Does your teenager have an alarm, yet refuses to get up? Go about your day and let them sleep. If they miss the bus, they need to figure out how to get to school by walking or calling a friend. Let the consequence fall on them—not you. (Remember: resilience. You can do this!)
  6. Volunteer together. Volunteering is a great way to give kids perspective. Help them see other struggles so that they might realize, “Hey, what I’m going through isn’t a big deal. I can manage this small adversity.”
  7. Model how to tolerate distress. You might be a parent, but you’re still human. And you face plenty of stressful situations yourself. Try talking to your child about them (in appropriate ways, of course). Say, hey, I had something difficult come up, but I’m on the other side now and here’s how I coped. When you model your own resilience and problem-solving, you teach kids they can do it for themselves as well.
  8. Get an accountability partner. Whether it’s a spouse, family member or friend, find someone you trust to help you move off the snowplow path. Tell them you’re really committed to not being this kind of parent and ask them to let you know if they see any signs.
  9. Unplug from social media. You already knew this one. You’ve probably told yourself this before. But it’s true: there’s so much pressure out there to make it look like your kids are involved in tons of activities and that everything is perfect. That. Is not. Real. Life. Protect your sanity by trying to consume social media in smaller and smaller portions.
  10. Maintain your own life. Before you can take care of your kids, you have to take care of yourself. Your friends, hobbies and interests can and should be important to you. Promote balance (and stress relief!) by keeping those things close and continuing to make your own life a priority.

Pediatric Psychology

Child Psychologist; Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics University of Missouri Kansas City School of Medicine