Helicopter Parenting: Why Are You Doing It?

This excellent infographic addresses the very real epidemic of helicopter parenting. I see this regularly in therapy sessions with children, especially teens and young adults. They often arrive with “depression” or over-regulated emotions, a lack of emotional resilience and a lack of problem-solving skills. They are often apparently helpless, leaning on their parents to sit with them to do homework for hours every night or give them specific directions on how to do chores — even up until they are in the late teens! Some never get jobs or learn how to drive until they are forced to when they leave the house. But some are also angry and rebellious toward parents. 

What is going on with these teen behaviors, but also — why do parents helicopter?

Certainly, parents state they are over-involved due to fear and an attempt to keep children safe. Good luck with that. No amount of over-protectiveness is going to guarantee that your child is not a victim of a random act of God or an accident. But your over-worrying is absolutely going to affect your child’s emotional, social and intellectual functioning well into adulthood, as the graphic points out.

The main reason many parents worry is largely due to shame. Yes, shame. The biggest fear is usually about a child’s grades and sport performance. Parents are afraid the child will “fail”  — get a B on a test (!) or not make the cheer team (!). And then the parent will “look bad” (be ashamed).

As the graphic mentioned, it is a parent’s “ego” that is getting in the way of healthy parenting. This leads children to intuitively sense that the parent’s emotional needs come first. The result is a child who turns off her intuition, self-care, and self-awareness, leading to emotional over-regulation or “depression,” but also anxiety. Low self-worth can also result, because a child senses that her needs are not paramount to the parent. 

A longer-term result is also that children learn that failure is unacceptable. They watch parents who are unable to tolerate shame and learn to model that behavior as well.

Two responses can occur, which I outline in Self-Acceptance Psychology as Counterproductive Shame Management Strategies. One type of child becomes a Self-Blamer, internalizing messages of inadequacy and becoming self-loathing, perfectionistic and over-achieving. Another type of child becomes an Other-Blamer, externalizing messages of shame and inadequacy by lashing out at others and exhibiting a lack of accountability.  Some kids also grow up to be Blame Avoiders, isolating from social contact and becoming loners. 

Parents: Truly examine why you are overly fearful about your child and whether this is helpful. The goal of parenting is to work yourself out of job, not become enmeshed with your child so that he or she is unable to function as an adult. If you want your child to grow into a competent, fearless, confident adult, you must back away from involvement in age appropriate ways. 

This can mean:

  • stop asking about grades and homework and stop checking them on the online portal
  • stop doing homework
  • stop reminding about chores or personal hygiene
  • stop bailing a child out by doing chores when they forget or running home to pick up forgotten homework or sports uniforms and delivering them to the school
  • stop negotiating with children over major family rules
  • stop stating your fears and worries out loud
  • stop offering your opinions and plans for the child’s future
  • stop intervening in interactions with teachers, coaches
  • stop getting involved in managing or problem solving with the child’s peer or dating relationships 

I could go on and on, but you get the point. While emotional attunement and connection is vital to healthy parent relationships with children, it is also healthy to have a distance when it comes to micro-managing behaviors, especially in the teen years. 

By micro-managing you are not allowing a child to fail — one of the best ways to learn by experience we know of. I always say:  Your child is going to learn to be accountable someday. It’s WAAAY better to have them learn this lesson when they are young, rather than as an adult. It’s much better for them to fail an algebra test because they didn’t study and learn that lesson, then to get fired from a job because they didn’t work hard. Or worse yet, learn accountability with a trip to jail.

You helicoptering them does not let them learn the lesson of accountability and shame tolerance — essential for healthy emotional and social functioning.