The Effects of Helicopter Parenting
When I was an adolescent, I thought nothing of going to school or the store on my own. I played in neighbors’ yards down the street from my home, listening for my mother’s voice calling me to come in. In my early teens, I took three buses on my own to go to high school. There were no cell phones, Internet, or GPS tracking devices.
Many children today do not enjoy the same freedom. Overprotective parents drive them everywhere and hover over their kids. Their parents use smartphones to constantly check on their kids via calls or text, and some even track their movements by following them or via a GPS tracker. They are determined their children will never feel uncomfortable or feel pain, so they try to swoop in to do everything for them. They also rescue them from difficult situations such as children quarrelling over a toy.
This parenting style is known as “helicopter parenting.” This behavior seems to be driven the parents’ anxiety and fear that harm will come to their children. The media compounds this fear by sensationalizing reports of kidnapping and other crimes. This overreaction to perceived threats and safety risks can lead to extreme measures such as parents demanding that swings being removed from a playground.
Helicopter parenting is not confined to childhood or early adolescence in some cases. There are media reports of some parents phoning their adult children at college every day to check on them. Parents clean the apartments of their adult offspring and do their laundry. Some will even call their adult children at their workplace several times a day, much to the chagrin of their offspring's bosses.
The "World's Worst Mom"
Several years ago, Discovery/TLC international aired a show called “World’s Worst Mom,” which helped overprotective parents to recognize these unhealthy behaviors and helped them to loosen their apron strings.
The show featured Lenore Skenazy, who was called that name after a media frenzy revealed she let her nine-year-old ride a New York subway alone. She has a book and blog called “Free-Range Kids” and promotes the idea that children should be allowed to do some things on their own so they develop self-confidence and independence.
Her show and other forms of media have exposed some common helicopter parenting behaviors:
- Doing things for children that they are capable of doing for themselves
- Doing all their housework and not requiring kids to do chores
- Constantly checking on children by phone calls, emails or text
- Secretly following them and watching them
- Not allowing them to go anywhere alone
- Forbidding anything perceived to be potentially dangerous such as sports or riding a bike
- Constantly warning about stranger danger and not allowing children to go on activities with peers such as sleepovers
- Running police checks or hiring private eyes to investigate the people involved in their children’s lives such as teachers or neighbours
How our Overprotectiveness Hurts us Parents
As parents, we earnestly want to keep our children out of harms way and safe. Sometimes, this desire can become an unhealthy obsession that can actually hurt our kids and us. According to experts at Iowa State University, our child rearing should focus on helping children to:
- Become independent
- Develop a positive self-concept
- Develop social competence
- Help them explore the world
We can be so caught up in our hyper-vigilance that we forget that we are also supposed to help our children to develop these skills. Instead, our fears, worry, and anxiety drives us to see danger and threats that do not exist or are extremely rare. We crave constant reassurance that our children are OK. In some people, this need is as strong as a drug addict’s need for a fix.
When these parents are assured that their children are safe, they feel a temporary sense of relief. This feeling does not last long, however, and they reach for the phone or use other ways to check on their kids yet again.
In some cases, parents are so afraid of their children becoming injured that they forbid them to participate in activities such as sports or play on a playground. This deep-seated fear may not be about safety concerns as much as it is about the parents feeling that they could not handle their child being hurt or injured.
All this anxiety and paranoia takes a toll on the physical and mental health of parents and caregivers. Their time may be more consumed with over-the-top vigilance and calming themselves down rather than on helping their children to be self-reliant and independent.
All around us, our society has become a culture of fear that children will be kidnapped or abused, suspicion of strangers, and hyper-vigilance of kids out in public. These people are quick to phone 911 or local security every time they think a child is being neglected or abused. There are cases of parents who leave their adolescents in a car alone for ten minutes while getting something at a store and end up being charged and convicted of child abuse. This type of hyper-vigilance overall harms both parents and children.
How Overprotection Affects Children
Creates resentment: Children want to learn how to be independent and be confident in their ability to handle the world. They may resent parents who do not give them opportunities to build these skills and some may even become rebellious.
Makes children fearful and distrust strangers: If parents are anxious and fearful, their children are likely to pick up these traits.
Children lack social and problem-solving skills: The reason is that parents swoop in and interfere when their children have conflict with others, and try to resolve things themselves instead of allowing their children to solve their own problems. The result is that children do not know how to cope with failure or challenging situations on their own.
What we Parents can Do to Find Balance
So what can parents do to ensure their children are safe and secure? In our hyper-vigilant culture, it is difficult to give children the freedom that I enjoyed when I was growing up. The first thing parents should do is analyze is why they feel driven to over-parent their children.
Sometimes parents are driven to this behavior because they do not want their kids to suffer the hurts that they suffered in childhood. Caregivers may have deep wounds that have not been healed that should be addressed.
In some cases, our fears and anxieties are all about us and not about our children. We use helicopter parenting techniques to assure us that we are doing everything we can to keep them safe. We do not want to feel guilty that we have not guarded our kids enough. While we swoop in and wrap kids in cotton wool, we deny children the opportunity to become independent, create social and coping skills, and develop problem-solving abilities.
Ways to Build Self-Confidence and Self-Reliance in our Children
There are many ways that we can cultivate these characteristics in our kids. For example, a helicopter parent will not allow an older child to cross the street on their own. A balanced parent will teach their children how to interpret the lights, look both ways before crossing the street, and to always be watchful for potential dangers.
Ask the children questions: There are many day-to-day situations that can become teaching tools. A question such as: “What do you do if (name) took your toy from you?” can open up a discussion that will help children explore ways to cope with stressful situations.
Teach them how to think for themselves: Parents can ask children to come up with solutions to everyday challenges. This boosts their kids’ confidence in their ability to handle difficult circumstances.
Focus on ways for children to become independent: Children grow and become more confident when they have to face risks. There is a time when the training wheels have to come off their bikes and they try to ride bikes on their own.
Let go when they grow older: There are helicopter parents who are monitoring their adult children while they are at college or even in the workplace. There are cases where parents are still controlling their adult children’s schedules by making and keeping track of their appointments. Some parents will even call a potential employer to find out how their child did in a job interview. These caregivers need to let their adult children live their own lives independently.
Parenting is a difficult task. Those who undertake this daunting role need to find balance when they are dealing with their children.
Signs You’re a Helicopter or Pushy Parent and How to Find Balance, Iowa State University
Yes, Overprotective Parenting Harms Kids, Nathan H. Lents, Psychology Today
The cult of kiddie danger, New America Foundation Weekly Wonk
Helicopter Parents: Hovering May Have Effect as Kids Transition to Adulthood, Neuroscience News
Is Your Hovering Making Your Kid Crash? PsychCentral, Peg Streep
© 2016 Carola Finch