Helicopter Parenting

Sabotages Success



Moving back in with parents after college is not necessarily a bad thing. For some young adults, crashing at mom and dad’s for a specified period of time in order to reach an explicit and attainable goal can be just the launching pad they need to propel themselves to the next level.

Read: Overprotection Immobilizes Kids

For others, the decision to move back into their parents’ home represents an effort to avoid a world where they must depend on their self-reliance. They deny this to themselves and perhaps others by spinning out unachievable fantasies of what they will “someday” accomplish. For them, dreams have become the tools of procrastination.

For some parents, the fear of no longer having the very most important role in their child’s life makes them want to stop the clock. They facilitate the adult child’s return to the nest with the expectation that their parental role will not change, the selfreinforcing conditions that turn living at mom and dad’s home into an unproductive codependency that can be difficult to break down.

This parent-child relationship has its roots in early childhood development. Such a pattern is referred to in popular culture as helicopter parenting, or cosseting parenting. More recently lawnmower parenting has been used to describe parents who mow down coaches, other parents or even other children in their desire to help their own child succeed in youth sports and other venues.

This over attentiveness to a child’s needs and constant hovering may feel intrusive to the child while growing up. But by the time they are grown, they may have become so accustomed to parental intrusiveness that they are uncomfortable without it because they do not know how to manage on their own.

Read: Trick Brain Into Straight A's

What is a 'Helicopter' parent?

Overly intrusive parents take on far too much responsibility for their child’s choices, behaviors, successes and defeats. They work tirelessly to line things up in such a way that the child will have a perfect life, free of heartache and rejection. When defeat inevitably presents itself the parent subtly blames the child’s self-initiative, however feeble it may be. In this way the child is taught not to experiment with self-directed decisions and this fosters what can be a crippling over-reliance on parents.

Over-parenting translates into parents acting as the frontal lobe for the child—examples include maneuvering to get the ‘right’ teacher, hovering over social interactions, directing play, deciding when their children should pull the plug on a social relationship or initiate a new one, overly checking assignments and grades, controlling extracurricular activities. When trouble mounts, these parents often go in one of two extreme directions—either by not bailing out the child in any degree (abrupt parental withdrawal of affection creates so much anxiety that the child silently vows to never again go against parental wishes) or by bailing out to the point that the child experiences no consequences at all.

Read: Feeding Insecurities

Why is this phenomenon even more prevalent now?

Helicopter parenting is more prevalent now than ever before in history. Parents are encouraged to get involved on a micro-level in the lives of their children. For some this becomes an obsession that starts in preschool. Parents may become in-class volunteers, coach the games, set up playdates and ensure children are fully prepared for kindergarten by doing extra schoolwork outside of school. At the other end of the education process, graduate school admission departments and law schools report larger than ever turnouts of parents to orientation and admission events.

By late elementary/middle school, many children have cell phones and readily utilize social media. This added technology means parents can be in touch with their offspring on a moment-to-moment basis. For gain or loss—parents today know a great deal more about their children’s private social worlds than they did 10 years ago. With few boundaries in place, parents feel liberated as they comment, criticize and offer suggestions. This unsolicited counsel robs children of the chance to grow through their relationships by learning for themselves who they can trust, who they like and how to learn to communicate their feelings to people when they are let down. They also learn a little about the social consequences of letting one or more of their peers down.

Parents who are always the child’s go-to person have a hard time letting go so that their children may experience life more directly.

Some parents start this pattern early, overly playing with their children and not allowing the child any quiet alone time. These parents have difficulty letting their kids struggle even for a small amount of time. The result of this overbearing approach is the child has a diminished internal/private world. Having a deep and rich internal world is what drives motivation, initiative and creativity. Those parents who intervene too much thwart this natural inherent drive.

As children reach high school, some parents go overboard trying to make up for the failure of not being involved with their children when they were younger. Just when a young person needs to be making more of their own decisions/mistakes, the parent sweeps in and takes away this opportunity. Other times, hovering is a way for parents to avoid confronting the fact that their stage of life is changing, their nest is emptying and they are going to have to make adjustments in their own lives. Micromanaging their grown child’s life is a way to perpetuate parenthood and, in a fashion, a method to freeze time.

When parents try to work out their own longings and needs through their children, it means the child is not able to achieve whatever developmental milestone is on the table for the particular stage of life they are experiencing. This often creates for a child a kind of dulling dependency and failure to flourish.

Read: Teen Substance Abuse Rates Higher With ADHD

What are the consequences?

After all of that intervention, intrusiveness, questioning and working, the day comes when some parents do feel like… “Okay we got him out of college, now he will be on his own,” and truly do want to let go at this time. What they discover is that without the reminding and encouraging of the perennial, parental alarm clock, their adult child has no idea how to proceed.

Adult children of helicopter parents have experienced so much cushioning that they have never made their own mistakes and, most importantly, have not learned to rebound from failure. As a result, they struggle with self-sufficiency and with learning how to talk themselves through setbacks. They tend to give up easily, dabble in their pursuits; and have difficulty developing depth in their relationships and professional pursuits.

Read: Engineering Children

How to parent without taking over?

Do you tend to take challenges away from your child? This can be done through gratuitous problem solving—for instance, carefully maneuvering the events, teachers and friends in your child’s life so that things are easier for him or her. Instead, focus on the long-term picture, not the short term bailout. Even if it is hard for you to not take over, remind yourself parenting is a marathon not a sprint. If they learn to deal with setbacks at an early age, they will be prepared for how hard real life becomes later.

Is what you are doing really for their well-being or for yours? Be very honest with yourself and notice if you are unintentionally encouraging your child to be overly dependent upon you. Perhaps this is helping you to not confront the reality of your own mortality or changing life role. Instead of using your child to fill a void, start working on building up your own professional, social or volunteer pursuits.

Can you engage your child in a conversation? Each time you find yourself problem solving for your child, pause and ask him or her how they want to handle the situation. You can offer suggestions, but make space for them to think through the situation too. Engage in a back and forth dialogue, supporting them by telling them you believe in them and know they will find a way to manage whatever is upsetting them. Remember: If you do not let them work through their setbacks, you are depriving them of the opportunity to see what they are capable of.

Do you have difficulty watching your child struggle? Most parents do. Some manage this discomfort by taking over the tasks entirely. Instead, offer coaching. Coaching is talking things through, offering emotional encouragement, but not taking on a challenge or problem solving for them. Remember your mission as a parent is to teach coping skills—not merely to provide happy experiences. Remind your child that rejection and disappointments are hard but these feelings do pass and one can always try again. Teach them how to distract themselves with other pursuits.

What is the personality of your child? It is important to consider what you child is like. Some are extremely self-disciplined, motivated and driven. If this sounds like yours, sure it is okay to step in occasionally and even to offer to help in specific ways. If your child has a harder time being a self-starter, help them tap into their motivation by talking things through, asking the important questions, but resist doing for them. Some kids simply need someone to unconditionally listen; this can be a great gift from a parent. A gift that has the power to unlock the door to self discovery.

Helicopter parents can adjust and change at any stage of the child rearing process. The mind is flexible and when exposed to new experiences can learn. That is true for parents and their children. Engage your child differently, do less of what should be their work. The reward is a child who will become more autonomous and goal-driven.

Jill Weber, a licensed clinical psychologist, practices in the Washington, DC area. She writes a blog for www.psychologytoday.com and is the author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy: Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships. Follow her on Twitter @DrJillWeber
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