Are You a Helicopter Parent?
The research behind being an involved parent without becoming a helicopter parent
Source: Gustavo Fring/Pexels
Parents right now face so many contradictory messages. On one hand, there is intense pressure on parents to be responsive, engaged, and sensitive with our children but at the same time parents constantly hear about the dangers of being a “helicopter parent.” The term “helicopter parenting” seems to be a term that older generations love to throw around at Millennial and Gen X parents who they believe “hover” around their children like a helicopter. It is often used as an insult without any acknowledgement of the increased pressures on parents today.
Parents currently are pushed to spend as much quality time as possible with our children, maximize their learning opportunities through play, and boost their development through providing educational activities and experiences during every spare moment of the day. We are expected to nurture our children’s social-emotional development by constantly talking about emotions and being fully present to regulate their every emotion. We are accused of “hovering” around our children at the playground but we are also criticized if we look away from our children for a second to send an important email or connect with a friend over social media. The norm for parents now is simply to be more involved in the lives of their children. In fact, research shows that parents now spend nearly twice as much time with their children compared to parents 50 years ago.
It is hard not to balk at the suggestion that our generation of parents are “helicopter parents” since there is simply more awareness now that involved, engaged, and responsive parents are important for children’s development. In fact, a huge body of research backs this up. Specifically, research finds that parent involvement is associated with many positive benefits, including improved well-being, more advanced academic and social-emotional skills, fewer symptoms of depression or anxiety or behavior problems, and improved social skills. Parents being more responsive to their children is linked to improved executive functioning, language development, and social-emotional development.
So how do you balance this as a parent— how can you be involved and engaged without “helicoptering”? How do you know if you are a “helicopter parent” or simply an involved parent who wants the best for your child?
What Exactly is Helicopter Parenting?
Surprisingly, helicopter parenting is not just an insult that your older relatives use to criticize your parenting, but a concept that has been studied pretty extensively in research. Helicopter parenting is a style of parenting that involves parents that are excessively involved and controlling of their children. One study defined it as:
“overly involved and protective parents who constantly communicate with their children, intervene in their children’s affairs, make decisions for their children, personally invest in their children’s goals, and remove obstacles their children encounter”
Researchers use questionnaires such as the Helicopter Parenting Instrument (HPI) to measure the extent to which parents show helicopter parenting. According to this questionnaire, you might be a helicopter parent if you:
Make all major decisions for your child and discourage them from making a decision you disagree with
Regularly complete tasks of daily living for your child that they are capable of doing on their own (for example, dressing them or helping them to remember things for school)
Overreact or become very upset when your child experiences something negative
Invest more time and energy into your child’s school assignments or activities than they do
Step in to try to “save” them from difficulty
Feel like a bad parent when your child makes poor choices
Try to “fix” any difficult situation
Consider yourself a “good parent” when you solve problems for your child
Don't encourage your child to take risks or step outside of their comfort zone
Think it’s your job to shield your child from anything negative
Source: Helicopter Parenting Instrument (HPI) (Source: Kelly G. Odenweller , Melanie Booth-Butterfield & Keith Weber (2014) Investigating Helicopter Parenting, Family Environments, and Relational Outcomes for Millennials, Communication Studies, 65:4, 407-425),
What’s So Wrong With Helicopter Parenting?
As I mentioned above, being an involved and engaged parent is associated with many positive benefits so could being over-involved really be so bad? Research suggests it might be. Several studies have found that this overly involved style of parenting has been associated with children being more depressed and less satisfied with life, more entitled, and less academically motivated as college students. Children who are parented in this way are also more likely to be dependent on others and use ineffective coping skills as adults.
Research finds that the negative effects of helicopter parenting stem from parents not respecting their child’s need for autonomy (translation: not providing children with enough choice) and competence (translation: not recognizing their child’s capabilities to do it without the parent’s help). Another study found that helicopter parenting may lead to children being less skilled at emotional regulation which then makes them more likely to experience emotional and social problems later in life.
Helicopter parenting also seems to negatively impact self-regulation abilities more generally. One study found that, when parents were overly engaged with their child during a difficult task, their child showed less advanced executive functioning and self-regulation skills.
The Opposite of Helicopter Parenting
The opposite of helicopter parenting is not actually being an uninvolved parent. Helicopter parenting isn't actually about how much time parents spend with their children, but rather about the way parents engage with their children, especially during challenges. Research suggests that the opposite of helicopter parenting is something called “autonomy supportive parenting.” Autonomy supportive parenting involves giving children the “just right” amount of help, encouraging and praising their effort and hard work, taking the child’s perspective, following the child’s lead, and providing them with choices. Autonomy supportive parenting has been associated with improved well-being, social skills, and intrinsic motivation.
What does this mean in practice? One study examined parent behaviors in detail and found that the over-involved parents (aka the “helicopter parents”) tended to provide frequent instructions, corrections, or suggestions to help their child with a task and regularly asked questions to check their child’s understanding. On the other hand, the parents of children with better self-regulation skills tended to stand back and follow their child’s lead. They responded to their child but didn’t direct them. They paid attention to their child and listened and acknowledged any progress or success without interfering.
Research finds that stepping back and letting children make choices and even mistakes is very important in helping children to develop the ability to regulate themselves. One study involving 14- to 18-month old toddlers found that parents who stepped back more during a challenging task had children who were more self-regulated . Another study found that teachers can promote self-regulation abilities by allowing children more choice and autonomy in play. For so many of us parents, it is difficult to watch our children struggle and we often feel a strong urge to step in and “fix” the problem for them, but this line of research suggests that allowing this struggle may help children to build essential skills.
How to Be an Involved Parent Without Helicoptering
So how can we be responsive and engaged with our children without being “overly engaged”? And what does this actually look like in practice?
Let your child make age-appropriate choices whenever possible. For toddlers, this might include choosing which socks to wear or which toys to play with. For preschoolers, this might include who to invite over for a play date or which part of the bedtime routine to start first. For school-age children, this might include choosing which extracurricular activities to do or how to solve a problem with friends.
Allow your child to make mistakes without correcting them (for example, allow them to figure out on their own that their block tower needs a stable base to avoid falling over or allow older children to leave for school without their show-and-tell object or, gulp, homework).
Let your child experience the “natural consequences” of their choices (for example, if they choose not to wear a coat they will be cold, if they do not clean up their room they will have difficulty finding toys, if they forget their library book they won’t get to check out another one).
Do not automatically “fix” your child’s problems. Instead, listen to your children’s problems and ask them how they would fix it. If they get stuck, provide some suggestions and allow them to decide how to fix it. If your child has a conflict with a sibling or a friend, ask them how they might compromise or solve the problem rather than resolving it for them.
Push your child to gradually face their fears. For example, if your child is afraid to approach a group of children, validate these feelings and provide empathy but then come up with a plan to slowly and gradually face these fears. Maybe at first you go with them to approach the group, then they approach the group with you several steps behind them, and eventually they work up to independently approaching the group. Don’t avoid situations or shape your day around avoiding anything that might make your child nervous.
Teach your child effective coping skills (such as, deep breathing, going to a “calm down” space, taking a “break” from an interaction with another child) and gradually step back and allow them to independently practice these coping skills when they are ready. Remember that the goal is to help them learn how to independently regulate their own emotions without your help so if you are always present helping them to calm down, they are not getting closer to achieving this goal. However, parents of course want to be sensitive to their child’s developmental level and emotional regulation skills and provide gradually less support rather than pulling away suddenly. For example, a toddler may need you fully present to co-regulate their emotions while a preschooler may only need you there to provide some ideas for coping skills.
Don’t take it personally when your child shows challenging behavior, makes a poor choice, or experiences developmental delays or academic issues. Remind yourself that any issues your child experiences are not a direct reflection of your parenting and that all children (and parents) struggle.
Give your child the “just right” amount of help. Recognize where your child is when learning a particular skill and give them as little help as possible so that thy can still successfully complete the task. For example, if your child is learning how to read and they are struggling with a word, rather than simply reading the word for them, remind them to sound it out or ask “What sound does ‘a’ make?” Another example would be if you would like your child to learn how to get ready for school on their own, make a list for them to follow rather than reminding them or helping them with each step.
When playing with your child, follow your child’s lead in play. Pay attention to what they are doing but avoid instruction, correction, or “quizzing” them with questions unless necessary. Don’t immediately fix problems or reassure them that everything will be “okay” if something goes wrong.
Being an involved parent is associated with many benefits, yet when parents become over-involved in their children’s lives in a way that it limits their abilities to make choices or do tasks they are capable of doing on their own, children are not able to develop essential skills that will allow them to become independent adults. By stepping back and allowing their children to make their own choices, fail or make mistakes, and experience negative emotions, children may be more likely to develop into successful adults.
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Welcome to the Parenting Translator newsletter! I am Dr. Cara Goodwin, a licensed psychologist with a PhD in child psychology and mother to three children (currently an almost-2-year-old, 4-year-old, and 6-year-old). I specialize in taking all of the research that is out there related to parenting and child development and turning it into information that is accurate, relevant, and useful for parents! I recently turned these efforts into a non-profit organization since I believe that all parents deserve access to unbiased and free information. This means that I am only here to help YOU as a parent so please send along any feedback, topic suggestions, or questions that you have! You can also find me on Instagram @parentingtranslator, on TikTok @parentingtranslator, and my website (www.parentingtranslator.com).
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May be the basic idea is to call a spade a spade.
And not try to put it too rose when the first thing to acknowledge is that something was not as expected.
Learning how to cope with difficulties? Could be.
May be for a child to feel (for a little while) that something went wrong is a way to appreciate when it goes well.
But yeah, words are easy. The difficult part is being there as a parent.
I was hoping you could clarify this sentence:
"Don’t immediately fix problems or reassure them that everything will be “okay” if something goes wrong."
The way I read it I hear "Don’t immediately fix problems or *don't* reassure them that everything will be “okay” if something goes wrong."
Is that correct? That part of not fixing the problem is also not saying it's going to be okay if they mess up?