Since my entire website and blog were initially based on the idea of helicopter parenting (see my About page to learn more about my blog’s background), it’s probably time that I actually devote a post to the helicopter parent.  This is the first post in a 3-part series on helicopter parenting.  In Part I, I describe what helicopter parenting is, explain why it’s not an ideal parenting approach, and summarize research findings on helicopter parenting.  In Part II, I will give tips on how to avoid becoming a helicopter parent.  Because helicopter parenting with college-aged children can be especially problematic, in Part III I will focus specifically on this population and how to help your child transition to college without too much hovering.

For those of you not acquainted, a helicopter parent is a parent who hovers over their child much like a helicopter can hover in one place.  The helicopter parent is always poised and ready to swoop in to rescue their child from any perceived difficulties and challenges – to ease any negative feelings, to fix all their problems, and to ensure their child’s happiness or success (or at least happiness and success on the parent’s terms).  In short, helicopter parents provide too much help to their child, even when that help is not needed or wanted.  Helicopter parents provide a level of support to their children that is developmentally inappropriate, intrusive, and controlling. A key phrase in this definition is “developmentally inappropriate”.  As children grow, their developmental needs change. What an infant needs from their parents is drastically different than what a five-year-old needs, which in turn is drastically different from the needs of a middle schooler and so on. Healthy parenting adjusts in response to children’s changing developmental needs.

For example (please note that all my examples pertain to neurotypical development only), following your one-year-old as they explore a playground is developmentally appropriate.  One-year-olds are typically novice walkers and consequently are unstable and fall a lot.  Plus, their brains are not yet developed to anticipate and avoid the potential dangers on a playground.  They largely operate on impulse, and that impulse can lead them to trouble.  In that situation, your hovering may just keep them from teetering several feet off a play structure or colliding with children swinging.  Following your six-year-old around the playground, however, is not developmentally appropriate.  By six, children should be able to safely navigate a playground without you being one step behind them.  Likewise, contacting your 4th grader’s teacher to discuss academic concerns is developmentally appropriate.  Fourth graders typically don’t have the maturity, self-awareness, and planning abilities to lead such a discussion, and parents largely oversee their child’s education in the elementary grades.  However, contacting your college kid’s professor to discuss academic concerns is not developmentally appropriate.  By college, your young adult child should be able to monitor their own progress, self-advocate, and ask for help when needed.   

Just in case you need more examples of helicopter parenting, here you go:

• making decisions for your college-aged child (for example: where to live, what to choose as a college major, where to work, what clubs to join, etc.)

• stepping in to resolve your children’s disagreements with friends, teachers, or employers

• assuming responsibilities that your child should handle (for example: packing your child’s backpack for them, bringing forgotten homework to school, doing or heavily helping with your child’s homework, looking for job opportunities, applying for scholarships, etc.) 

So why is helicopter parenting problematic?  Let me refer you back to my post on fostering autonomous motivation.  In that post, I explained that according to Self-Determination Theory, all people have 3 basic psychological needs that must be met to ensure healthy development:

1) Autonomy – feeling in control of your own life and behavior

2) Competence – feeling capable of accomplishing what’s important to you

3) Relatedness – feeling a warm connection with others    

The positive associations between basic psychological need satisfaction and emotional and academic well-being (for example: emotional adjustment, motivation, satisfaction, vitality, engagement, academic honesty) has been well-established by researchers for decades.      

Because of its intrusive and controlling nature, helicopter parenting is likely to foster family environments that fail to satisfy these basic needs. Helicopter parents tend to think that they know what is best for their child and what will make their child happy.  Consequently, they make most of the decisions for their child, limiting their child’s autonomy and sense of control over their own life.  Competence is denied because helicopter parents fix everything for their child, giving their child few occasions to practice problem-solving independently.  Additionally, by assuming their child’s responsibilities, they send the message that their child is not competent to do these things for themselves.  Finally, the intense parental support of helicopter parenting may feel intrusive and overbearing to the child and contribute to difficult parent-child relationships.      

And, in fact, research supports using Self-Determination Theory to understand helicopter parenting, statistically linking helicopter parenting to decreased autonomy, decreased competence and multiple characteristics of difficult family relationships (for example: difficult parent-child communication and relationships, decreased family satisfaction, child withdrawal from the family, a critical family environment, etc.).     

But wait!  There’s more!  In general, research shows that helicopter parenting is associated with a variety of negative well-being and academic patterns.  Check it out! 

Now here’s a very important caution: Research on helicopter parenting thus far has been almost exclusively correlational in nature.  That means that we can only find RELATIONSHIPS between helicopter parenting and other characteristics.  For example, we can say based on the research that helicopter parenting and anxiety often tend to co-occur (they are linked/related/associated).  BUT we absolutely cannot say that helicopter parenting CAUSES anxiety or any other characteristic.  It is possible that helicopter parenting does in fact cause anxiety, but it’s also possible that seeing their child struggle with anxiety causes parents to hover over their child in order to offer extra support.  To determine if helicopter parenting causes anxiety, a researcher would have to randomly assign children to one of two types of parents: helicopter parents and non-helicopter parents.  Obviously, that approach is completely impossible, unethical, and wrong on every level, so we will have to be content with correlational research. 

Now that you know a little more about helicopter parenting, you probably want to know how you can avoid becoming one yourself.  I’ll address that question in my next post.  Stay tuned.

Thanks for reading!

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