In Part 1 of this series on helicopter parenting, I explained what a helicopter parent is and summarized recent research on helicopter parenting. In Part 2, I’ll give tips on how to avoid becoming a helicopter parent.
To briefly review, a helicopter parent hovers over their child, always ready to rescue their child from any difficulties. They try to ease their child’s negative feelings, fix their problems, and ensure that their child is happy and successful (or at least happy and successful in the parent’s eyes). The level of help that a helicopter parent provides is developmentally inappropriate, overbearing, and intrusive. (See Part 1 of this series for examples of helicopter parenting and why it’s not a healthy parenting tactic). So now that we know what a helicopter parent is, let’s talk about how you can avoid becoming one.
1. Communicate trust in your child – In your words AND actions, convey to your child that you trust that they can make good choices and accomplish their goals. Expressing your confidence in your child will help them feel supported and valued, and they will feel more confident in themselves and be more willing to try new things. You will also be a safe anchor for them to express their doubts and worries. Ask questions that are supportive, rather than critical. Help problem-solve if your child is uncertain about a choice.
Trusting in your child doesn’t mean blindly supporting everything they propose. I’m not saying that if your child says they want to learn to fly by jumping off the roof, you should cheer them on from the ground. Rather, talk to them about their interest in flying, explore the physics of flight (at a level appropriate for their age), discuss why jumping off a roof is unsafe, and problem-solve other, safer ways that they can learn more about flying: maybe parasailing on a family vacation, visiting an aviation museum, reading books and watching videos about flight or famous aviators, bird watching, going to an air show, racing paper airplanes, doing an egg launch off the roof, etc. Instead of shutting down their interest by declaring their idea is ridiculous, impossible, etc., show that you embrace and support their interest.
2. Give your child developmentally appropriate independence – As your child grows, their developmental needs change, and your parenting should adjust accordingly. Check in periodically with yourself to make sure that the level of autonomy and the responsibilities you are granting your child match their current developmental abilities. Coach them through a new task from the sidelines if they need help. My general guideline is to provide the least amount of help possible without my kids becoming too frustrated. I try to ask my kids if they want help instead of if they need help. Sometimes they look to me like they need help (like when they’re trying to squeeze their big head through a tiny shirt sleeve), but they want to continue trying it independently. “Needing” help implies that they cannot do it without me, and “wanting” help means that the help is on their terms and is a more empowering way to offer assistance. I want my kids to own their tasks. If I provide too much help, then it’s my accomplishment, not theirs. If I provide too much help, I also communicate to them that I do it better and maybe even that they are not capable of doing it. A friend posted a meme on social media recently that I thought captured this situation perfectly: “When you: cut it for me, write it for me, open it for me, set it up for me, draw it for me, or find it for me, all I learn is that you do it better than me” (from www.mrsdscorner.com).
As a parent, it’s so hard to resist the temptation to take over a task from your child for two reasons: 1) it’s hard to see your kid struggle, and 2) it’s easier and faster to do it for them. Sometimes I have to really bite my tongue and practically sit on my hands to stop myself from interfering, but giving your kid the chance to do something by themselves is crucial to their development. The good news is that children are hardwired to want to do things for themselves. When my son was 3, his mantra was, “No, I do it myself.” We heard this all the time. Yes, it was annoying at times to let him constantly try things on his own because it slowed us down and sometimes made big messes, but he learned so much and developed so much confidence in his own abilities. Our job as parents is to help these little people grow into functioning, healthy, and happy big people. If we don’t let them practice the little tasks when they’re little, they won’t be prepared for the big tasks when they’re big.
Here are a few examples of how you can give your child increasing developmentally appropriate independence (please note that all my examples are based on neurotypical development):
• An infant needs help getting dressed, but a toddler can increasingly master this skill independently. It’s easy to get stuck in a routine and continue dressing them yourself. Instead, begin giving them opportunities to try getting dressed on their own. You can coach them through small steps and offer help if they get stuck and WANT help.
• A kindergartner is capable of packing their own backpack, and if they are virtually learning, they are also capable of getting their school supplies and laptop or tablet set up and ready for the day. However, it’s developmentally appropriate to run through a checklist with them to make sure they remembered everything. Your middle schooler, however, should be able to pack their own bag or set up for virtual learning independently.
• By late preschool, kids are capable of doing some food prep independently, whether it’s grabbing some yogurt or an apple out of the fridge or getting some crackers. We have an area in the refrigerator and one cabinet where we keep food that the kids can grab on their own if they want a healthy snack. It makes my life so much easier to hand this bit of autonomy over to them, and they feel proud that they can get their own food. As kids grow, their independence in the kitchen should grow too. High schoolers can definitely handle scrambled eggs and pasta. Laundry is similar. My young kids are too short to use the washer and dryer, but they can help gather the dirty laundry and fold and put away the clean laundry. Once they grow another foot, they will be able to master the washer and dryer too.
3. Let your child make mistakes– I know it’s so hard to see that your child is making a mistake and to just let them make it anyway. Mistakes are a part of life and among the best teachers out there. Learning how to persevere through a mistake is really difficult. Everyone struggles with it, even adults. Protecting children from mistakes denies them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and how to recover from a mistake. My daughter had a spelling test this week. Because she’s learning virtually, I was sitting near her during the test. I saw her spell a word wrong, and then she turned to me and pointblank asked me if she spelled it correctly. I was torn emotionally because, let me tell you, this girl is a perfectionist with a capital P. I know she will be so upset when the graded test is returned and she sees she made a mistake, but I also know that making mistakes in school is a normal and essential part of learning, and learning to be resilient in the face of errors is an important skill in the big picture of my daughter’s education. So, I simply told her that I could not give her any feedback on her test. I’m sure when she gets the test back, we will be working through some disappointment, but that’s okay. There’s opportunity for growth in that too (see #4). Other examples of common mistakes that parents are tempted to fix for their child include bringing forgotten homework assignments to school; helping their child complete a major school project at the last minute; changing their writing, drawings, or LEGO builds to make them “better”; and constantly reminding their high schooler to be on time for school (assuming that them being late doesn’t mean you’re late for work).
4. Let your child experience and process negative feelings – Letting your child sit with their negative feelings (sadness, anger, jealousy, resentment, etc.) is one of the hardest parts of parenting for me. I want to wrap my kids up in my arms and magically make them feel happy again, but realistically, you cannot prevent or fix every negative feeling that may arise in your child. Emotion regulation is the fancy psychology term for learning to handle your feelings, and it’s an essential part of child development. As newborns, our kids are 100% dependent on us to regulate their emotions. They are hungry or wet or have a tummy ache, and we fix it. As they grow, just like with other developmental tasks, the goal is for them to eventually learn to regulate their emotions independently. Emotion regulation does not happen overnight. It takes experience in both successfully and unsuccessfully handling strong emotions. If you constantly take responsibility of your child’s feelings, they will not learn to regulate their own emotions. They will continue to need you to fix their bad day for them. Instead of trying to ease their negative feelings, let them know you’re available to talk when they are ready to do so. Then when they are ready, listen to them, sit with them, give empathetic responses, and offer hugs.
A tactic I see a lot with younger kids is distraction. For example, if a child is upset because another child has a toy that they want, it’s instinctual to try to distract them with other toys or a silly song. The better approach is to be empathetic, acknowledge their feelings as legitimate and worthwhile, and help them through those feelings, “I’m sorry that toy isn’t available. It’s hard to wait for a toy. Do you want to ask that child to let you know when they’re done playing with it? What do you want to do while you wait for the toy?” We wouldn’t respond to an adult friend’s negative feelings by changing the subject. To do so would communicate that we either didn’t care about their feelings or that their feelings made us uncomfortable. Instead we would offer a listening ear. That’s how we should treat our children’s feelings too. Let them experience their negative feelings, acknowledge their feelings, and support your child as they work through them.
In Part 3 of this series on helicopter parenting, I will explore helicopter parenting specifically in the college-aged population. Because of the developmental needs of college-aged students, helicopter parenting can be particularly problematic with this population. Stay tuned.
Thanks for reading!