What is helicopter parenting and how does it affect children? How to spot the signs of a helicopter parent.
We’ve all seen the memes; a well-intentioned, but overly involved mum or dad cramping a kid’s style by inserting themselves obnoxiously in the classroom, on the playing field and even into their friendships.
Whether you stifle a giggle at such caricatures, or blush in recognition of your own behaviours in them, ‘helicopter parents’ are often the butt of the joke when it comes to poking fun out of parenting styles.
But what is it? Is helicopter parenting always bad and what are the effects of this over-involved style on children’s behavior in the long term? In this Guide To… we take a deeper look at Helicopter Parenting.
What is ‘helicopter parenting?’ and where did it come from?
The phrase was coined back in 1969 in the parenting book ‘Between Parent and Teenager’ by Dr. Haim G Ginnott. Before the invention of the term, ‘cosseted’ or ‘cosseting’, was the general descriptor for a style of child-rearing that saw parents taking a controlling, over involvement in all aspects of their child’s life.
Helicopter parents sit at the authoritarian end of the parenting style spectrum by proactively involving themselves in their children’s hobbies, schooling, and friendships to try and control the outcomes. This is typically done with the best of intentions – for example, to protect and guide a child to succeed, but this micromanaging style of parenting is associated with some less than positive outcomes. Let’s look deeper at the examples and issues that helicopter parenting can create.
Helicopter parenting behavior might look like
- Calling teachers directly to discuss a child’s grades
- Doing assignments on a child’s behalf to get better grades
- Calling a teen’s potential employer to discuss job opportunities
- Choosing a child’s friends and dictating relationships
How does helicopter parenting compare to other parenting styles?
Modern parenting psychology outlines a variety of different styles of childrearing ranging from the overly involved ‘tiger mom’ to the more laid back ‘free range’ parent. All types fit within a spectrum of four overarching types:
- Authoritarian parents believe that children should obey all rules and apply discipline when a child doesn’t do as they’re told. They’re the types that would agree with the old adage, ‘children should be seen and not heard’.
- Authoritative parents are more likely to form a collaborative relationship with their children. The feelings of the child are taken into account, but rules and consequences are always enforced. The reasons behind the rules are laid out to the child and the sharing of feelings is encouraged.
- Permissive parents believe that ‘children will be children’ and don’t often enforce rules. They form a friendship-based dynamic with their offspring and can be very laid back when it comes to disciplining children for bad behaviors.
- Uninvolved parents take little interest in their children’s lives, schooling, and friendships beyond providing basic needs.
Psychologists generally agree that a more authoritative style of parenting – where the parents provide safety and security through rules and structure, but allow their child to make their own mistakes, is the best for long term outcomes.
Why does helicopter parenting happen?
The psychology of helicopter parenting can be the result of a variety of factors, including cultural influences, anxiety and competitiveness. The core reason always comes back to the parent trying to be helpful, but the root can go often go deeper:
According to Psychology Today, helicopter parents can fall in two camps – promotional and preventional. The former has a mindset that is goal orientated and drives them to achieve onwards and upwards. The latter is more concerned with avoiding failures and protecting feelings.
Another reason can be regret. Many people use their children as extensions to their own lives and use them as an opportunity to achieve things that they believe they missed out on in their own youth. This is sometimes called ‘identity parenting’, where a person gets an ego boost from the achievements of their offspring.
Commentators also note our ongoing competition culture – where comparison is rife and many people feel a deep pressure to be the best as a reason why helicopter parenting appears to be on the rise.
Certain cultures and religions value authoritarian styles of parenting. Amy Chua, author of ‘Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother’; came under fire for making comparisons about Western and Eastern parenting styles in an infamous article in The Wall Street Journal, where she makes the case that Chinese mothers demand more from their children as they believe that through hard work, they are capable of anything.
What’s so bad about wanting the best for my child?
Most helicopter parents are well-intentioned. According to (Odenweller, Booth-Butterfield, & Weber, 2014), helicopter parents tend to be well-educated, well-resourced, and well-meaning. However, an over-involvement in a child’s life, beyond what’s developmentally appropriate can cost them in the long run.
According to a study by Neil Montgomery at Keene State College in New Hampshire, students who had been raised by helicopter parents were more likely to suffer from higher levels of anxiety, less open to new ideas, and are more vulnerable. Helicopter parenting statistics from Montgomery’s research showed that around 10% of the sample were raised in that style.
In addition, researchers Schriffin & Liss, 2017, discovered that helicopter parenting is actually associated with poorer academic outcomes as children don’t develop the necessary skills to motivate themselves to learn independently. Instead, they are focused on rewards and avoiding criticism as opposed to developing a more self-motivating skill set.
Other studies have shown far more concerning outcomes. One study of 300 college students found that students who’d experienced helicopter parenting were more likely to to use prescription medication for anxiety or depression. And, they were more likely to use pain medication without a prescription too.
Helicopter parents whether they realize it or not, are sending signals to their children that they need them to perform everyday tasks, including socializing and this in longterm can have a detrimental effect on self-esteem and confidence.
Is helicopter pareting on the rise?
Experts believe that this anxiety-lead type of parenting has been on the rise for several decades. Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of “How To Raise An Adult” cites a variety of factors that came to a head in the 1980s, including a greater cultural awareness of child abductions with missing people milk carton campaigns, tougher school schedules and homework demands, and the rise of the ‘play-date; where children’s play became a competitive learning opportunity.
Now, in our digital age, where every achievement is fodder for social media feeds, it’s likely that helicopter parenting is set to become increasingly commonplace as we try to keep up with achievements and picture-perfect examples of our peers.
How to be more flexible and fight the urge to control your child’s life.
Failure is important. We need to learn from our mistakes in order to grow and learn how to avoid them in the future. When we control our children’s behaviors and interactions, we’re actually depriving them of the opportunity to learn and feel confident in their own abilities.
Ask yourself if you regularly catch yourself doing one or more of the following:
- You do all the chores
Are you the one to make your child’s bed every morning? Even toddlers are capable of learning simple habits to become autonomous. If you’re still the one to be picking up dirty socks, washing dishes, and doing all the laundry, take a moment to reassess the household chores. Delegate age-appropriate tasks that will enable your child to take some more responsibility for their belongings and set them up for a productive and functional future.
- You’re the homework problem solver
It’s OK for your child to get a bad grade. Yes, I really said that. If you’re stepping in to construct the science project or putting pen to paper for poetry homework your child is going to become too reliant on your input. It is absolutely the right thing to do to support your children with their homework, but be honest with yourself – are you going too far with it?
- Your first reaction is to call the teacher
If your child comes home feeling sad about a playground argument and your first reaction is to call the teachers to iron it out, you may be helicopter-ing. Of course, if your child is being bullied then that’s a serious matter, but if it’s just a childhood spat, try arming your child with the diplomatic and social skills they need to reforge friendships on their own.
- Failure isn’t an option
You don’t want your child to fail at anything to spare their feelings. Children are tougher than you think. Set-backs are a way of life and if you have wrapped your child in cotton wool, they’re going to find it incredibly difficult when they’re adults to cope when life doesn’t always go their way.
- Safety comes first
‘Get down!’, ‘slowly!’, ‘don’t run!’ – sound familiar? If you’re constantly reminding your children to be careful and feel anxious about letting them take part in activities that have a physical risk, you might be being a little over-cautious. Supervised climbing and exploration of their environment are important for a child’s development. Ensuring you have the right balance between sports, and free play is important.
So, are there any positive effects of helicopter parenting?
Helicopter parenting in the short term will help protect your child from both physical and emotional harm, as well as provide them with the support they need to succeed in their hobbies and academic achievements, but most commentators agree that this isn’t sufficient reason to make this a long term strategy.
There’s no such thing as giving your child too much love or support. It’s the way that you do it that matters. Moving every obstacle that they might face out of their way so life is as smooth as possible isn’t a long-term pathway for success. Building your child’s confidence and life skills is the best way to bring out their true potential.
How to ditch the helicopter habits
If you’re reading this and recognize some of the signs of helicopter parenting in your own life, it is possible to adopt strategies to become more balanced in your approach:
- Try not to worry
A lot of helicopter parenting can be down to anxiety. Worrying about your child’s future and not doing enough to help prevent them from harm, or promote their skills, is a near-constant worry for parents. Try to take each day at a time, and don’t project too much into the future. Being there, giving a safe and loving environment for your child, and arming them with the tools they need to be self-starting, resilient and confident is a great way to start.
- Be yourself
It’s easy to forget about your own goals, passions and interests when you have children. It’s your job to do the best for them and give them every opportunity to succeed, right? True, but you also need to fill your own cup to have enough to give out to others. When you forget what makes you happy, it’s all too easy to slip into identity parenting, which isn’t good for you or your kids.
- Celebrate individuality
If your child has a hobby, or pursuit that makes them really happy, celebrate it. We’re all different – what you imagined might be your child’s favourite sport might well end up being their most hated! Our children come through us, not to us, and ultimately, success is found in the things we love, so help your children find the things that truly matter to them.
In conclusion, it’s clear that being too much of a ‘helicopter parent’ may have a detrimental effect on your child’s future happiness and wellbeing by depriving them of the opportunity to develop failure-led strategies to cope with the stresses of life. Perhaps the balance is best found in being a strong, supportive guide to your child’s ongoing development, and making sure that the tendency to hover is tempered with a desire to guide and teach your child the skills they need to self motivate and navigate social and emotional challenges with confidence.