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The Problem With "Mama Bear" Syndrome


If my sons robbed a convenience store, their mother would say, “That was the best convenience store robbery of all time.”

My father used that line on friends, family and colleagues quite a bit when my brother and I were growing up. It immediately came to mind last night as I read about Zubeidat Tsarnaev, the mother of Boston marathon bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. In an interview with CNN, she claimed that not only were her sons innocent, but the attack that killed three people was a fraud. “This is a show” is how she described it, adding that it was red paint, not blood, that stained the Copley Square sidewalk.

This is nothing new. The mother of Ted Kaczynski reacted in similar fashion. According to published reports, Ted’s brother David had been secretly working with the FBI for months before he finally told their mom. When David broke the news that Ted was the Unabomber, the man whose homemade bombs killed three and injured 23 others, she kissed David on the cheek, then told him he was wrong.

“Ted Bundy does not go around killing women and little children!” Louise Bundy said in 1980 after her son Ted was convicted of killing numerous young women. “Our never-ending faith in Ted—our faith that he is innocent—has never wavered. And it never will.” Of course she was wrong. Really, really, really wrong.

Gladys Zimmerman is the mother of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed 18-year-old Trayvon Martin one year ago. “I believed from the beginning he is innocent,” Gladys told Headline News. Unfortunately, no matter how this murky media circus of a trial plays out, chances are the public will never know the truth of what happened that night in Sanford, FL, when one man had a 9-millimeter handgun and the other had a bag of Skittles.

Since time immemorial, Mom—mighty ursine protector that she is—has been a child’s most trusted ally. You’d have to fight tooth and nail to tear the halo off her kid’s head. But heaping layers of maternal bubble wrap can create serious problems. A plethora of studies show that overprotective parents have children who deal with higher rates of depression, stunted emotional development, lack of confidence, fear of failure and “failure to launch” syndrome.

“The mother's instinct is to protect her children and see them in a positive light—at nearly all costs,” says Dana Dorfman, a psychotherapist and family counselor in New York City. But why, at times, is there such a chasm between being protective and being realistic? “It’s our hope that our children reflect our values and belief systems,” Dorfman explains. “Ideally, we view our children as individuals who are separate from us, but invariably, the boundary between our self perception and our perception of them becomes blurred. Our children are extensions of us, and our egos.” The result: Their sins become our sins. Their failures become our failures. And sometimes, a mother’s commitment to seeing the best in their child—and therefore the best in themselves—means “they’re unable to consider alternative interpretations.”

Mom will always outdo Dad as a child’s greatest advocate, for better or for worse, and I believe we have biology to thank for that one. Mother and baby begin their journey together, entwined, connected by a literal lifeline. Isn’t it appropriate that Dad is traditionally the one who cuts that lifeline on Day One.