What Is Helicopter Parenting?

Confused about how to be an involved parent without smothering your kids? Here's how to tell if you're a helicopter parent, along with expert advice to curb the hovering.

The term "helicopter parent" was first used in Dr. Haim Ginott's 1969 book Parents & Teenagers by teens who said their parents would hover over them like a helicopter. It became popular enough to become a dictionary entry in 2011. Similar terms include "lawnmower parenting," "cosseting parent," or "bulldoze parenting."

illustration of propeller hat
Illustration by Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Helicopter parenting refers to "a style of parents who are overly focused on their children," says Carolyn Daitch, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders near Detroit and author of Anxiety Disorders: The Go-To Guide. "They typically take too much responsibility for their children's experiences and, specifically, their successes or failures," Dr. Daitch says.

Ann Dunnewold, Ph. D., a licensed psychologist and author of Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juice Box, says the helicopter parenting definition is simply "over-parenting." "It means being involved in a child's life in a way that is overcontrolling, overprotecting, and overperfecting, in a way that is in excess of responsible parenting," Dr. Dunnewold explains.

What is a Helicopter Parent?

Helicopter parenting most often applies to parents who help high school or college-aged students with tasks they're capable of doing alone (for instance, calling a professor about poor grades, arranging a class schedule, managing exercising habits). But really, helicopter parenting can apply at any age.

"In toddlerhood, a helicopter parent might constantly shadow the child, always playing with and directing his behavior, allowing him zero alone time," Dr. Dunnewold says. In elementary school, helicopter parents may ensure a child gets a certain teacher or coach, select the child's friends and activities, or providing disproportionate help for homework and school projects.

Why Do Parents Hover?

Helicopter parenting can develop for a number of reasons. Here are four common triggers.

Fear of dire consequences: Parents might fear a low grade, rejection from the sports team, or a botched job interview—especially if they feel they could've done more to help. But according to Deborah Gilboa, M.D., founder of AskDoctorG.com, "many of the consequences [parents] are trying to prevent—unhappiness, struggle, not excelling, working hard, no guaranteed results—are great teachers for kids and not actually life-threatening. It just feels that way."

Feelings of anxiety: Worries about the economy, the job market, and the world in general can push parents to take more control over their child's life in an attempt to protect them. "Worry can drive parents to take control in the belief that they can keep their child from ever being hurt or disappointed," explains Dr. Daitch.

Overcompensation: Adults who felt unloved, neglected, or ignored as children can overcompensate with their own children. Excessive attention and monitoring are attempts to remedy a deficiency the parents felt in their own upbringing.

Peer pressure from other parents: When moms and dads see other over-involved parents, it can trigger a similar response. "Sometimes when we observe other parents over-parenting or being helicopter parents, it will pressure us to do the same," Dr. Daitch says. "We can easily feel that if we don't immerse ourselves in our children's lives, we are bad parents. Guilt is a large component in this dynamic."

The Effects of Helicopter Parents

Many helicopter parents start off with good intentions. "It is a tricky line to find, to be engaged with our children and their lives, but not so meshed that we lose perspective on what they need," Dr. Gilboa says.

Engaged parenting has many benefits for a child, such as feelings of love and acceptance, better self-confidence, and opportunities to grow. However, "the problem is that, once parenting becomes governed by fear and decisions based on what might happen, it's hard to keep in mind all the things kids learn when we are not guiding each step," Dr. Gilboa explains. "Failure and challenges teach kids new skills, and, most importantly, teach kids that they can handle failure and challenges."

The helicopter parenting effects are widespread, but may include these five factors.

Decreased confidence and self-esteem: "The main problem with helicopter parenting is that it backfires," Dr. Dunnewold says. "The underlying message [the parent's] over-involvement sends to kids is 'my parent doesn't trust me to do this on my own.'" This, in turn, leads to a lack of confidence.

Undeveloped coping skills: If the parent is always there to clean up a child's mess—or prevent the problem in the first place—how does the child ever learn to cope with loss, disappointment, or failure? Studies have found that helicopter parenting can make children feel less competent in dealing with the stresses of life on their own.

Increased anxiety: A study from the University of Mary Washington has shown that over-parenting is associated with higher levels of child anxiety and depression.

Sense of entitlement: Children who have always had their social, academic, and athletic lives adjusted by their parents can become accustomed to always having their way and thus they develop a sense of entitlement.

Undeveloped life skills: Parents who always tie shoes, clear plates, pack lunches, launder clothes, and monitor school progress—even after children are mentally and physically capable of doing the task—prevent them from mastering these skills themselves.

How to Avoid Helicopter Parenting

So how can a parent care for their children without inhibiting their ability to learn important life skills? Dr. Gilboa offers this advice: "As parents, we have a very difficult job. We need to keep one eye on our children now—their stressors, strengths, emotions—and one eye on the adults we are trying to raise. Getting them from here to there involves some suffering, for our kids as well as for us."

In practical terms, this means letting children struggle, allowing them to be disappointed, helping them to work through failure. It means letting your children do the tasks that they're physically and mentally capable of doing. As Dr. Gilboa says, "Remembering to look for opportunities to take one step back from solving our child's problems will help us build the resilient, self-confident kids we need."

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