Helicopter Parenting

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Ask most parents what they want for their children, and they’re likely to answer that they want them to be happy, have a good life, be successful in their careers, and have happy families of their own one day. They might add that they’d like to see them succeed in their interests whether that is a sport, the arts, or another skill.

These are all good goals and reflect the care we parents have for our children.

In recent years a growing shift has been identified in how parents act to support children in achieving the positive outcomes described above. In order to clarify this shift I will contrast the newer trend with earlier parenting styles.

In the 1950’s, British psychiatrist and pediatrician D.W. Winnicott described the “good enough mother” as one who initially responded almost perfectly to the needs of the infant, and then gradually, as the child developed their own capacity to respond effectively, failed to respond to their needs, thereby developing self-reliance in the child.

We see this process unfold as we watch a child learn to walk. They may pull themselves up on a nearby coffee table, balance unsteadily for a few moments, then land on their diapered bottom. This happens repeatedly until they can stand steadily while holding on. Eventually they don’t need to hold on, and soon they start taking steps. Meanwhile they land on that bottom over and over again. By not preventing their fall, parents enable their children to become walkers.

The same process continues as parents “fail” to respond to their children’s needs just as they are becoming able to take responsibility for meeting that need themselves. Children raised this way have a higher level of autonomy in how they spend their time, how they play with friends, and how they achieve their goals.  As a result they enter adulthood with the capacity to rise to the challenges life presents. Once in a while they may call home for a few bucks when the going gets too rough.

Beginning in the 1980’s a different approach in parenting began to become more common. Parents began to become more active in an effort to ensure that everything worked out for the best for their children. The positive goals described above were unchanged. What changed was how much responsibility parents took on and continued to carry for their children, even after their children were developing the capacity to meet those needs themselves.

A parent acting under this pattern is more likely to push for their child to be admitted into a certain class or program at school, whether the child has the talent or interest or not, based on the parent’s belief that it will be in their best interest. Parents may also insist that all children get a ribbon or trophy when participating in a competition regardless of their performance. Some parents become insistent that their child be accepted into a desired college or field of study and advocate aggressively on the child’s behalf with anyone who can help achieve the parent’s desired objective for their child. This pattern continues into adulthood and parents have come to job interviews with their children, and advocated for their hiring for desired positions.

A growing body of evidence is showing that this pattern of over parenting is having a decidedly negative impact on the emotional well-being of many children and young adults. Having had their needs and desires so effectively met by their parent/advocates, they develop an expectation that they will get what they want with little effort on their own behalf. They often lack the skills needed to meet those needs as they’ve rarely had to do so. They have not had much experience learning to tolerate disappointment and can feel devastated when events don’t go well. Upon entering college these young adults are evidencing much higher rates of serious mental health problems than past generations. Research has shown that 1 in 2 college age adults will experience a clinical depression in the course of their college experience.

The over-parenting pattern or helicopter parenting as it has been termed for the way these parents tend to hover over their children, is driven largely by fear and anxiety. The media presents an image of a highly competitive and dangerous world. Parents feel a need to protect their children and give them every advantage so they can compete to succeed. Some parents are motivated to compensate for feelings of insecurity or inadequacy by creating a great success of their child.

Sadly, rather than ensuring the success of their child as desired, this style of parenting unintentionally undermines the child’s capacity to actually achieve that success.

What parents can do is increase awareness of who their child really is and what their skills and interests really are. Then parents can encourage and support children in taking their own steps to grow and develop those abilities. Parents can express confidence in their child’s ability to achieve a goal, and leave it up to the child at the level that is age appropriate. Steering children toward other resources than themselves, such as teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, and even peers can be another way to foster greater self-reliance in reaching goals.

Parents can spend time showing affection and approval separate from any task or goal. This is time spent just having fun and enjoying time together. Watching a movie and eating popcorn together is a good example.

Let children go out and play with peers in unstructured, unsupervised activity. This supports creativity, social skills and problem solving skills. It allows children to have fun together. So much play is now formalized in afterschool organized events managed by adults.

I encourage you to consider your purpose as a parent. If we are aiming to define and ensure that our children fulfill our concept of how their life should be, then we must strive to control as much as we can in their lives. If successful we give them the life we have determined for them.

If our purpose to support our children’s transformation from helpless infant to self-reliant and fulfilled adult, then we need to let go of our definition of their good life, and support them by offering the freedom to define and fulfill their own vision. We can do so by being good enough parents by not meeting every need perfectly, and letting go so our children take the reins of their own lives, gradually according to their capacity, until we can take joy in seeing the wonderful adults they become.

By: Phil Rainer, LCSW-R