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.

There are a variety of parenting styles and a quick review of the neighborhood park's playground will show everything from the permissive parent to the authoritarian parent. You might also see helicopter parents. The term "helicopter parent" was first used in Dr. Haim Ginott's 1969 book Between Parent & Teenager by teens who said their parents would hover over them like a helicopter. 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 over perfecting, in a way that is in excess of responsible parenting," Dr. Dunnewold explains.

RELATED: What's Your Parenting Style?

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 him behavior, allowing him zero alone time," Dr. Dunnewold says. In elementary school, helicopter parents might work to ensure a child gets a specific teacher or coach, select the child's friends and activities, or provide disproportionate help for homework and school projects.

Why Do Parents Hover?

Helicopter parenting can develop for many 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 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 children. Excessive attention and monitoring sometimes attempt to remedy the parents' deficiency in their upbringing.

Peer pressure from other parents

When parents 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 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 message, 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 2014 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that over-parenting is associated with higher levels of child anxiety and depression. Researchers found the same was true for college students whose parents were over-involved, as well.

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. 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 kids from mastering these skills.

How to Avoid Helicopter Parenting

So how can a parent care for their children without inhibiting their ability to learn essential 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, and 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, and 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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