It’s safe to say that there’s no one way to parent effectively. Every family has different values and every child has different needs, making everyone’s parenting style unique in some way.
We do know, however, from psychologists and other experts in the human development field, that certain types of parenting can be more effective—or more detrimental—than others. One of the buzzier parenting styles that can hinder kids more than help them is helicopter parenting.
The term “helicopter parent” isn’t a new concept but it’s gained traction in recent years as more parents seemingly adopted this strategy of raising kids.
Helicopter parents are typically overly involved in their kids’ lives, and have a hard time letting their children fail, struggle or perform tasks on their own. This is especially true if a parent’s help can procure a leg up in some way, like a better grade in a class, for example.
While there is nothing wrong with wanting to help your child succeed—it’s only natural that a parent would want to shield their kid (or even their adult children) from harm and assist them however they can—there is a line that helicopter parents often cross between providing guidance and being a detriment to their kids’ development.
Here’s what you should know about over involved parents and how too much helicopter-ing can negatively impact your child.
Parenting style: Understanding the helicopter parent meaning
Helicopter parenting typically refers to parents of high school and college age children who are over involved in their kids’ lives, from academics to extracurricular activities to social lives.
The helicopter terminology refers to these parents’ proclivity to perpetually hover over their children and was first used in the 1969 book Parents & Teenagers written by Dr. Haim Ginott, a psychotherapist, school teacher and child psychologist.
The term gained traction more recently with a rising trend of parents who provide over and above assistance to their children, whether it’s working with them on a school project or homework or all-out writing their college essays.
In 2011, “helicopter parent” even became a dictionary entry and spawned other terms like “bulldozer parenting” and “lawnmower parenting,” both of which are considered more extreme versions of helicopter parenting.
Helicopter parenting examples
In general, helicopter parents tend to be overly focused on their kids and get involved in ways that are overprotective and overreaching of what’s expected of a responsible parent. Here are just some of the hallmarks of helicopter parenting:
- Being overly involved at school and in after school activities in order to continually monitor their kids
- Making decisions for their children, like which activities to join
- Not allowing children to resolve conflict on their own
- Providing corrections for their kids instead of allowing them to make mistakes
- Not supporting their kids’ independence through household tasks by picking up after them even when it’s not age appropriate
- Not encouraging healthy separation and fostering separation anxiety
- Protecting children from even small disappointments or failures
- Barring kids from participating in activities that are appropriate for their age, like school dances and sleepovers
There are of course different degrees of helicopter parenting. Some parents hover more closely than others or in certain situations, like when it comes to academics and grades. Some parents are more concerned with safety and bar their kids from attending social functions or spending time unsupervised with friends.
What these parents share is that they are typically looking out for their children and have their best interests in mind. However, these overly involved parents tend to do more harm than good.
What causes helicopter parenting?
Because helicopter moms and dads are usually just trying to do what they think will help their child succeed, stay safe or remain protected from the harsh realities of their world, they may be unaware that they are indeed helicopter parents.
For many over involved parents, they’re just committed to doing what’s best for their kids—they just happen to go over and above what’s appropriate or necessary in that regard.
There are a number of reasons that a parent might end up in helicopter territory. Here are the most common causes of being a too involved parent:
Wanting to give their children opportunities they never had
For parents who grew up struggling, whether financially, academically or socially, there’s often a desire to give their kids a life they never had.
Parents who are in a position to help their children succeed may become overly involved in their kids’ lives in order to provide them with opportunities they weren’t able to have themselves. They might also try to help their kids by shielding them from the kinds of mistakes they made or steer them toward choices they wish they had made. But when it comes to them growing up into college students, well being and academic success can most definitely be hampered.
Many hovering parents have anxiety over their children, whether they fear for their literal safety or they worry about their child’s future. The effects of helicopter parenting creates anxiety, and translates into a need to control their kids’ lives and micromanage their everyday tasks.
This includes everything from homework to playdates. Left unchecked, this anxiety can trickle down to these over-parented kids, causing them to feel as uneasy about their own problems as their parents do.
Fear of failure
Parents often see their children as reflections of themselves. They want their children to succeed in part because the success in their children’s lives makes them appear to be better parents – not just to the world at large, but to themselves.
There’s a sense of selfish pride in seeing your kid achieve a major accomplishment. This fear of failure isn’t just based on parents’ self-interest, however. Parents largely don’t like to see their kids struggle.
It’s hard to sit on the sidelines and watch as they work hard at something only for it to blow up in their face, whether it’s a science project or a first crush or a big game with their sports team. Helicopter parents want to prevent these disappointments from happening by trying to nip them in the bud early and redirect.
Sometimes the environment you’re parenting in can affect the way you parent.
Even the most secure, confident moms and dads can be swayed in a place where helicopter parenting runs rampant. When other parents are advocating for their kids or getting too involved, you may feel tempted to follow suit so that your kid doesn’t get left out or fall behind.
Or, you may feel pressure from your own parents or other loved ones you trust if they often criticize free range parents and encourage you to be more involved. Your social setting can influence your parenting, especially in stressful or uncertain times.
For those with less involved parents growing up (typically the children of baby boomers), having kids is a chance to do things differently. Some parents hover because their own parents didn’t and they vowed to be more hands-on with their kids.
When you’re trying to make up for something that was lacking in your own childhood, there can be a tendency to over course correct. You’re so set on not doing things the way your parents did that perhaps you go a little too far in the other direction.
Using child as a distraction from their own career aspirations or priorities—or lack thereof
Finally, some helicopter parents dive deeply into their kids’ lives as a form of escapism.
Perhaps you gave up your career when your children were little and you’re unable to break back into your line of work. Maybe you don’t have any hobbies or passions of your own besides your children.
This happens to a lot of parents who pour their hearts and souls into their families. Sometimes it’s easier to focus on the kids rather than face the realities of your own lack of aspiration or opportunities.
What are the effects of having helicopter parents?
There are some benefits of having helicopter parents.
For instance, overly involved parents typically know where their kids are at all times and may have an easier time identifying issues related to mental health, bullying and falling grades. However, for the most part, overly involved parents don’t prepare their kids for the real world and all of the situations that these children will inevitably have to face, alone, throughout their adult lives.
Here are some of the negative outcomes and effects that having helicopter parents can have on kids as they continue to grow into young adults:
Overly dependent on parents
Children of helicopter parents don’t get the chance to hone their life skills when they are in their adolescent and high school years. Since they aren’t given responsibilities at these developmental stages, they aren’t able to handle basic tasks when they’re college age and beyond.
Even something as basic as an adult child bringing home laundry for their parents to wash is a hallmark behavior of someone who has helicopter parents. Taken to the extreme, being overly dependent could mean that a young adult never feels ready to live on their own.
Underdeveloped ability to deal with life
Experts describe parents that tend to “helicopter” as those that create kids with poor coping skills. Getting rejected, hearing critical feedback or struggling with a task can all be too much for someone who is used to their parents bailing them out or protecting them from life’s inevitable disappointments. While adulting can be a lot, even for seasoned grown-ups, not having any reference point of past struggles can make life even harder.
Children of helicopter parents may also not have a strong sense of themselves and feel like they are unequipped to manage their own lives, since their parents managed their lives for them. They might spend a lot of time doubting themselves and their abilities.
Propensity toward rebellion
Some kids with a demanding or overly involved parent will get pushed to a point where they just can’t continue with the status quo. These children will rebel against the programming the helicopter mom or dad has set for them, whether it’s a schedule of activities they don’t really enjoy or a list of colleges they need to apply to.
Grown children who always had mom or dad making decisions for them will have a hard time determining the direction of their own life. Part of learning to be an adult is making choices and understanding how various outcomes can help or hinder you. Kids who haven’t learned how to reason through making decisions for themselves can feel stuck whenever there’s a fork in the road.
Inability to deal with failure
When parents shield their kids from failure, kids assume that failure simply won’t happen to them. This, of course, is misleading since everyone fails at something at least once in their lives.
When grown children don’t have any experience with getting knocked down and getting back up again, they can struggle with low self esteem and feelings of not being good enough. Instead of building resilience from past failure, these kids are shocked that they don’t automatically succeed at everything, which can be disorienting, to say the least.
Overdeveloped sense of entitlement
Kids who are used to mom or dad swooping in to bail them out can have issues with authority, especially people telling them no. This sense of entitlement can come from a good place: a belief that they are worthy and deserving. But it can also transform into feeling like the world owes them, which can come back to bite them in a number of settings, from the workplace to dating.
Strained parent-child relationship
There are two types of helicopter parents: Those are supportive and loving and those who are authoritative and cold. When kids experience the latter, they tend to grow into adults with strained relationships with their parents. They may resent their parents for pushing them too hard or controlling their lives. While helicopter parenting can be detrimental in many ways, having parents who are constantly hovering and unloving is even worse.
How to stop helicopter parenting
If you feel like you might be a helicopter parent, first realize that you’re doing the best you can with the tools you have. There’s no standardized course to take on how to be an ideal parent so many of us are just figuring it all out as we go, making mistake after mistake along the way. Chances are, your heart is in the right place.
Next, it’s time to encourage some independence, both in your kid and in yourself. You don’t need to do a full 180 and pull back from being involved in your child’s life. But the following suggestions will help you ease into a less directive position. Here’s what you can do:
Step 1: Gradually give your kids space
Of course, when kids are little, it’s normal—actually, it’s necessary—to hover over them. For some parents, this instinct just doesn’t fade.
Work to give your kids space, even if it’s just 15 minutes at a time where they can play by themselves, with siblings or with friends. Over time, you can give your child even more space to play (and later work) independently.
This sets them up to feel confident without you continually being involved and allows them to be creative and free thinking without being influenced by you.
Step 2: Help children decide their own classes and activities
If you’ve been heavily involved in what your kids do inside and outside of school, it’s time to stop completely controlling what your kid learns and does.
Rather than approve their class schedule, encourage them to pick their own courses. You can provide insight and direction on whether they should take AP classes in high school or choose a certain elective in college but ultimately it should be their choice.
The same goes for sports and activities. You can give choices, especially if you are paying for extracuticialy classes, but allow them to make the ultimate call on whether they take dance lessons or join the club soccer team.
Step 3: Dole out age-appropriate responsibilities
It may sound crazy to some people but kids as young as two can help out around the house. (Younger kids may need help or not do things perfectly but that’s kind of the point—to learn!)
Be sure that your child is responsible for at least some household tasks beyond keeping their room neat. A five-year-old can set the table. A ten-year-old can walk the dog. Encourage everyone in the family to participate in making your home functional.
Step 4: Don’t fix problems, Teach problem solving
No parent likes to watch their kids struggle, no matter how old they are. But it’s not your job to protect your child from every potential setback. Instead model how to solve problems and find resolutions.
When your child makes a mistake, talk through it and help them understand what went wrong or how they might modify their behavior or decision in the future. If your child has a problem with a friend or teacher, try not to offer advice, especially if they haven’t asked for any.
Do your best to listen and steer your child toward understanding how to solve the conflict for themselves. Practice active listening and ask questions to help your child understand how they can resolve the situation. Turn these problems into brainstorming sessions and teaching opportunities, not lectures.
Finding balance as a parent
Parenting is a tough gig. No matter how many years you’ve been at it, life throws new curveballs your way. (And right at your precious kid, too.) If you’ve fallen into the helicopter parent trap, know that you can right the course and start giving your child the independence they’ll need to thrive in the real world.
While we’re not here to provide medical advice as if we’re scholars submitting articles for the Journal of Child and Family Studies (j child fam stud), we know that once you stop helicopter parenting—and trying to shield your kid from all of life’s problems—you’ll be doing them a huge favor. You’re definitely not abandoning them.
Instead, you can stand beside your kid and guide them through life in a loving, less hands-on way. This will allow you to help your child grow into the self-sufficient, responsible adult you’ve always hoped they could be.
Want to connect more with your child, but don’t know where to start? Check out these questions to ask kids for a little more insight into your little one.