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The Three Most Critical Ways That Helicopter Parents Damage Their Children

As a mother and teacher, I've seen the deleterious effects of helicopter parenting and how it makes kids reluctant to take on challenges.

When moms and dads overparent, their kids can grow up to be young adults who can't cope with everyday problems.

When moms and dads overparent, their kids can grow up to be young adults who can't cope with everyday problems.

The Negative Effects of Helicopter Parenting

It can negatively impact children in three critical ways:

1. Leaving them unprepared for the real world

2. Making them reluctant to take on challenges

3. Causing anxiety and depression

Each of these consequences is detailed below.

1. Leaving Them Unprepared for the Real World

A hovering helicopter parent’s outlook is often limited in scope. They focus on what’s in front of them at the moment: speaking to the soccer coach about giving their child more playing time, phoning the teacher to see why their kid got a B and not an A, and contacting the piano teacher to find out what skills their youngster should be practicing. They’re convinced that being a good parent means micromanaging their child’s life.

Helicopter parenting makes parents feel powerful and in control. This is especially gratifying if they feel impotent in other areas of their life due to an unhappy marriage, a stressful job, or taxing friendships. Their intense need to be in charge, though, can prevent them from seeing the big picture and their number one goal: preparing their child to become a competent and independent adult.

Julie Lythcott-Haims is the author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. In her book, she discusses the long-term pitfalls that await children who grow up with moms and dads who are too hands-on, can’t take a step back, and shelter them from challenges, failures, and disappointments. Lythcott-Haims, a former Dean of Freshman at Stanford University, witnessed how overparenting had crippled students on her campus. While these young people were the best and brightest academically, they were unable to cope with everyday problems.

Worried about this new generation of incompetent college students, Lythcott-Haims discovered a common denominator among them: overly involved parents. Her duties at Stanford grew to include interacting with helicopter moms and dads on a regular basis as they showed up on campus with questions and concerns about their kids' grades, roommate situations, and class schedules. This was a new phenomenon at Stanford and one Lythcott-Haims found deeply troubling. She writes, "Parents protect, direct, and handle so much for children today that we prevent them from the very growth that is essential to their development into human beings."

In this interview, Julie Lythcott-Haims explains how helicopter parenting prevents kids from developing life skills, becoming independent, and being competent.

2. Making Them Reluctant to Take On Challenges

Mandy, a physician’s assistant and mother of three, had always looked forward to the annual science fair at her elementary school when she was a kid. She adored the process of finding something that she was curious about, researching it, and setting up an experiment. Firmly believing that this process of scientific discovery had been invaluable throughout her life, she asked her children’s principal why their school didn’t hold a science fair. He explained that they had for decades but stopped ten years prior because of overly involved parents who were doing the projects for their kids. As a result, he and the faculty concluded that the yearly event was no longer benefiting students and had become a farce.

Sadly, as Mandy’s situation illustrates, helicopter parents can limit learning opportunities for their own children as well as other people’s. While these moms and dads describe themselves as “supportive and helpful,” they’re actually destructive. By inserting themselves into something that their youngster should be doing on their own, they’re underlying message is: I don’t think you’re up to the task. You’re not capable enough to handle it. You need my assistance or you will fail.

A youngster hears this, believes it, and internalizes it. As a result, they’re less confident and less willing to take on challenges. This, in turn, stunts their personal development. They believe that it’s better to play it safe, avoid taking risks, and steer clear of failure. They miss out on the enormous growth that comes from making mistakes, learning from them, and gaining grit. This is extremely detrimental to kids because studies show that perseverance, not intelligence nor talent, is the number one determinant of success in life.

In “Helicopter Parenting: The Consequences,” Laurence van Hanswijck de Jonge, a developmental neuropsychologist, notes that interfering moms and dads accomplish the opposite of what their aim is. Instead of building their child’s self-esteem, they’re obliterating it. She writes:

“Helicopter parenting backfires! The over-involvement of the parent makes the child believe that their parents will not trust them if they do something independently. It, therefore, leads to lack of self-esteem and confidence. When we parent this way, we deprive our kids of the opportunity to be creative, to problem solve, to develop coping skills, to build resilience, to figure out what makes them happy, to figure out who they are.”

3. Causing Anxiety and Depression

Like many of her preschool peers, Sophia gets picked up by a parent and is hustled off to her next endeavor when the 3-hour class ends. In her case, it’s ballet. After a quick break for lunch, she spends the afternoon at soccer practice followed by Spanish lessons. Sans the 45 minutes of “free choice time” at preschool when she can use her imagination and play with friends, her day is scheduled with structured activities led by adults.

Today, this over-programming of children is quite common and accepted, a hallmark of helicopter parenting. Worried that their kids won’t succeed in an increasingly competitive world, moms and dads sign them up for as many activities as possible. Pediatricians, developmental psychologists, and educators, though, are sounding the alarm that helicopter parenting and over-programming can have a negative impact on children’s overall well-being. As these practices have increased in popularity, there has been a corresponding rise in anxiety, depression, narcissism, and obesity among children and teens.

Dr. Peter Gray has dedicated his life to studying the importance of play in building a youngster’s social skills, enhancing their creativity, promoting their problem solving, and increasing their emotional, mental, and physical health. He’s the author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. He considers today’s play deficit a national crisis and encourages parents to take a step back and give their kids more time for “free play.” He defines this as being “self-chosen and self-directed,” meaning that the youngster is in control and there’s no adult direction from teachers, coaches, tutors, caregivers, and parents. He writes:

"We’ve seen declines in empathy and creativity. All this has been documented over the decades using well validated, clinical questionnaires with normative groups of school-age children and college students...I believe the decline of the freedom to play has led to this psychopathology in children, decreases in certain social skills and abilities and in creativity."

Whether they consider themselves helicopter parents or not, every mom and dad should watch this compelling TED Talk by Dr. Peter Gray about the decline in free play over the past 60 years and the corresponding rise in anxiety and depression.

What do you think?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 McKenna Meyers