What Is Intrusive Parenting, and How Does It Shape the People We Become?

By the SMU Digital Marketing Team

Gone are the days when kids were free to roam in the kampung with friends from the neighbourhood, catching guppies from drains and climbing trees — with their parents only calling them home when dinner is cooked. For generations now, due in part to the lower birth rate and greater resources available to families, parents living in developed countries like Singapore often have the capacity to be highly involved in the lives of their kids. After all, positive parental involvement in, say, a child’s education has certainly shown to result in a student’s success in school, regardless of the parents’ level of education.

However, the tendency to be involved might cause parents to veer into the realm of intrusive parenting — when a parent imposes their values and beliefs onto their children and restricts their autonomy. The latter, unfortunately, has shown to result in markedly negative consequences on a child’s psychological development.

Germaine Tng, 2nd Year PhD in Psychology student at SOSS, SMU

“When I was learning more about parenting research during the first year of my PhD, intrusive parenting stood out to me as a dimension of parenting that consistently showed interesting and robust relationships with children’s developmental outcomes such as self-regulation and other behavioural issues,” says Germaine Tng Yue Qi, a second-year PhD in Psychology student at the SMU School of Social Sciences (SOSS).

Her research paper “Inhibitory Control Mediates the Relation between Intrusive Parenting and Externalising Behaviours in Socioeconomically Disadvantaged Children: A Structural Equation Analysis” received an ‘Honourable Mention’ RISE Research Award at the Association for Psychological Science (APS) Convention (2021), one of the largest and most prestigious Psychology conferences in the United States.

The research project focused on a sample of three-year-old children from socioeconomically disadvantaged families in rural American counties. According to Germaine, the effects of intrusive parenting can be especially grave for children’s development in lower-income populations, due to a potential lack of access to parenting resources that facilitate and stimulate children’s cognitive development.

Germaine adds that parents provide the primary caregiving context for young children and play a very significant role in their development, especially during the critical age window of early toddlerhood when neural and cognitive development is highly malleable to environmental influences — which is a reason why we often think of young children as “sponges”. “I’ve always been interested in how parenting shapes the people we become,” she adds.

Given that these critical aspects of our development are shaped by parenting, it is important that we better understand the role of intrusive parenting and the mechanism underlying its role.


What makes an intrusive parent?

Parents tend to want the best for their children and hope to shield them from the physical hurt arising from potentially dangerous situations, or a sense of failure when they do not come up tops in the real world.

Associate Professor of Psychology Hwajin Yang

As with all behaviours, parenting practices lie on a spectrum, explains Germaine’s PhD advisor Dr Yang Hwajin, SMU Associate Professor of Psychology.

Intrusive parenting practices tend to be rooted in a lack of respect for and a restriction of children’s age-appropriate autonomy, such as when parents provide excessive instructions to children on how to think or feel, provide more-than-necessary help for the child’s ability level, or encourage their children’s dependence on them.

At the other end of the spectrum, autonomy-supportive parenting includes behaviours such as providing age-appropriate help, encouraging children’s independence, taking their perspective, and following their lead.

For instance, if a child is having trouble solving a jigsaw puzzle, intrusive parents may unnecessarily step in and instruct the child by instructing, “This is the correct piece”; while autonomy-supportive parents let the child figure out the puzzle through trial-and-error, and perhaps offer appropriate guidance by narrowing down their options (e.g., “Should we try fitting one of these two pieces?”)

Intrusive parenting can also manifest in different ways depending on the developmental stage of the child: In early childhood, intrusive parenting may involve excessive assistance in daily activities as opposed to allowing the child to figure these tasks out independently or with appropriate guidance. In childhood and adolescence, intrusive parenting may involve excessive guidance on how the child should think or feel. In adulthood, intrusive parenting or autonomy restriction may manifest by providing excessive instruction or limitations concerning their child’s lifestyle or career-related choices among others.

As Dr Yang says: “In essence, the common thread here is the interference or intrusion of the child’s autonomy.”


Let’s break it down

That’s not to say parents should adopt a completely “hands-off” attitude to raising their children. Instead, they can look into the method of scaffolding, which involves providing appropriate help for a child’s skill level by building on the child’s existing knowledge, offering new possibilities, and creating choices.


Broadly, existing research has found that autonomy-supportive, rather than intrusive parenting, is linked to advantages for children’s cognitive and socio-emotional development.


“Much like construction scaffolding, this provides a framework to support the child as they figure out new skills and stretch to new heights beyond their current abilities,” shares Germaine.

“The scaffolding can then be removed when the child has fully mastered the new skill and may practise it independently.”

Broadly, existing research has found that autonomy-supportive, rather than intrusive parenting, is linked to advantages for children’s cognitive and socio-emotional development. This is theorised to be the case because intrusive parenting limits opportunities for children to learn by doing; including learning to self-regulate and problem-solve. Autonomy-supportive parenting, on the other hand, allows for children to figure problems out and explore solutions with their parent as a ‘secure base’.

In early childhood, when parenting practices can particularly shape children’s developmental outcomes, parents and caregivers can thus be especially mindful of the importance of autonomy support while avoiding intrusive parenting practices. Healthier and autonomy-supportive parenting practices include encouraging and appropriately praising children, such as saying “you must feel so proud that you (insert action or behaviour)”, taking the children’s perspectives by asking for their thoughts and feelings, or following a child’s lead and providing them with choices.


How working from home affects parent-child relationships

It is unclear whether home-based learning and working-from-home practices have exacerbated intrusive parenting tendencies, says Germaine, but they have likely created more opportunities for parents to engage with their child’s learning and to make conscious parenting choices.

“For instance, parents can observe or even sit-in with their children during home-based online classes to guide them if necessary and if their schedule permits,” Hwajin notes.

“As some parents may also be home for more hours in the workday, they also have more opportunities to engage with their children during breaks and meal times. This can create pockets of time to engage in supportive parenting practices such as interactions about each other’s thoughts and feelings, responding to their child’s needs warmly, and providing age-appropriate help so children can engage in challenging tasks (that is, scaffolding).”

Parenting is a complex and contextual task, considering the many decisions parents make daily and the unique needs of each child. Where appropriate depending on various circumstances (e.g., child’s ability level or other situational factors), parents may opt for a more autonomy-supportive style of parenting (e.g., scaffolding), which is less intrusive and provides healthy guidance while still encouraging independence in their children’s lives. This sensitive, but not overbearing, approach can encourage self-regulating behaviour and other positive outcomes in children that are important for their cognitive, socioemotional, and behavioural development.