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. 

The Price Tag Incident: Conflict Avoidance as a Protection Against Shame

price tag with copy space isolated on white

A few nights ago when I got undressed I discovered that I had a price tag hanging off the back of my shirt. It was clearly visible all day long to 10 different clients as they walked behind me to my office,  yet not one person said anything. 

I was first mildly embarrassed for a minute — although I would have been mortified for days before I became self-accepting!

Yet my next thought was of those people who saw the tag and said nothing. I learned a lot about how they handle shame. Yes, shame again shows up as driving so much of human behavior. 

Certainly, it can be difficult to point out something embarrassing about another person. People have difficulty criticizing others because they do not want to make others feel uncomfortable. Not speaking up seems polite.

My clients wanted to protect me from a shaming experience by not pointing out my flaw — the forgotten price tag. They did not know that to me it would not have been shaming, but rather helpful. I would have appreciated being told about the price tag sooner, rather than not at all. 

By their (lack of) behavior my clients also showed me about their difficulty tolerating shame. 

They know all too well the pain of this emotion and experience. So when they see someone else doing something embarrassing they have difficulty saying anything largely because they themselves don’t like the feeling of shame. 

Conflict avoidance can often be about protecting someone from shame due to your own fear of being shamed. 

A common scenario I hear in therapy is clients who have difficulty breaking up with someone they’ve been dating who is clearly not right for them. They don’t enjoy the shame of being rejected and they imagine that the other person does not like this either. So they avoid the conflict of rejecting this person, and continue to date far longer than they should. Of course, now they have a very big job. Wouldn’t it have been easier to reject this person after the first or 10th date, rather than after 6 months? 

How would you handle conflict differently if you could tolerate shame with equanimity? What would you do if you could be certain the other person could also tolerate shame well?

What Mass Killers REALLY Have in Common

A blog on “What Mass Killers Really Have in Common” asserts that to prevent domestic terrorists and mass killers we should scrutinize those who commit domestic violence. It posits that it is the patriarchal attitudes these men have toward women that also cause them to be violent toward large groups of men and women. 

While I do agree there are similar behavioral and psychological traits between domestic abusers and mass killers, completely lacking from this article is any understanding of the psychology of people who lash out in a rage at others, whether it is at their wife or a random group of strangers. Even many experts on domestic violence do not understand why these abusers behave as they do. 

As I explain in “Self-Acceptance Psychology,” the real reason these men became violent is they lack an ability to tolerate shame in healthy ways. The connection between anger and shame is clearest in violent people.

Domestic abusers and mass killers are extreme examples of a personality type I have labeled  an Other-Blamer. Likely due to childhood trauma, these individuals have low self-worth and are hypersensitive to shame. Any perceived or real criticism is felt as devastating. 

Trauma also makes them more likely to over-react and lack cognitive control of their emotions. When they become fearful of being denigrated, humiliated, rejected or abandoned, they react with the “fight” response. They attack emotionally or physically, often by criticizing and blaming others. They generally lack accountability for their actions. Anger is used as a psychological tool to protect them from feeling shame, which is unbearable to them.

In extreme cases, Other-Blamers can become so ashamed and then enraged that tragedies can occur.

Anger is an emotion essential to survival and can be helpful if it is used as a self-protective response to boundary violations in relationships. If someone does something morally wrong, you should get angry. It is actually healthy for you, the other person, and the relationship.

However, anger is often used as a defensive response to feelings of shame. The root cause of the shame/fear connection is an intrinsic sense of low self-worth combined with a natural fear of exclusion or rejection by the social group.

I am certainly not a fan of patriarchal attitudes if, rather than leading men to be protective of others, they instead lead to denigration of women. However, shame and anger are far more potent causes of violence than patriarchal attitudes. 

Writing Your Way Toward Mindfulness, Self-Acceptance and Self-Calming

 

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Writing a journal can actually lead to more than just insight. It can improve mindfulness, self-acceptance and improve relaxation. 

New  research shows that writing about feelings is key to handling difficult emotions – like regret — and leads toward self-compassion and self-acceptance.

“Being kind to oneself is an excellent way of letting go of past disappointments, embarrassments and failures.”
It often seems best to be self-critical when we’ve done something shameful and then move on past that “icky” feeling quickly. This research confirms that actually living with it — or writing about it — and then accepting our faults actually leads to healing. 
I have journaled for many years, diving deeply into emotions, thoughts, and relationship issues. It has been a form of self-therapy that has been incredibly helpful.  I would find it very powerful to journal immediately after a therapy session to record and deepen the experience and emotions. Journaling helped me sort through difficult relationship problems, make decisions, and get to know myself after a lifetime of disowning my thoughts and feelings. 
According to the Center for Journal Therapy, journaling is the “the purposeful and intentional use of reflective writing to further mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health and, wellness .”  

gratitudejournal can be especially helpful at building self-compassion skills. 

It is fascinating that other recentresearch is even showing that handwriting is similar to meditation in that it calms our brain and balances the right and left sides of the brain. Computer use strengthens the left side of the brain, while handwriting strengthens the right. 

Handwriting also slows us down and keeps us in the present moment, a more relaxed state than over-thinking and worrying.
Because I am a very fast keyboarder, I often wanted to write my journal on the computer. But I intuitively knew that this would not lead to the most evocative experience. Handwriting forces us to slow down our mind and body, so that we can access our feelings. It was amazing how often insights would spring up even as I journaled about a dream, experience or feeling. I would be writing about what I thought was the real meaning, when a second, deeper meaning might pop into my brain. I’m not sure that would have happened if I had been keyboarding furiously. 
I think for me one aspect that is key to the value of journaling as a healing tool is being non-judgmental. Many people avoid writing a journal because they fear sitting with pen hovered over paper and having “nothing to say.” This is often related to fear of not writing something that isn’t “perfect” and feeling self-judgment about that. Yet learning to write without self-criticism can be a valuable exercise in learning to be less self-critical in our thoughts.
So just let it flow out, with no filter or worry about what others will think — because no one will read the journal, anyway! You’ll gain the benefits of self-acceptance, emotional regulation and mindfulness.