What is a helicopter parent anyhow?!
The ‘helicopter parent’ buzzword has become immensely popular in recent years. However, while many people use it, its meaning and the implications it has on children’s development are rarely understood. To help us shed some light on this popular concept, psychologist and Jumbo parent, Yulia Bondarenko, explains in this article what it means to be a helicopter parent, how it impacts children’s development and what the alternative parenting strategies might look like.
So, what is ‘helicopter parenting’? The term was first introduced in 1992 by Cline and Fay in their book ‘Parenting Teens with Love and Logic’. They defined helicopter parents as parents who hovered around their teenage (and older) children to protect them from every perceived problem or difficulty. They explained that these parents “confuse love, protection, and caring” and prevent their child from failing (as perceived by parents) in any aspect of the child’s life.
Since then, there has been a flurry of research to better understand ‘helicopter parenting’. What we now know is that ‘helicopter parenting’ is not a particular parenting style, but rather a number of behaviours: overprotectiveness and over-involvement, anxious rearing, anticipatory problem solving for the child (where the parent anticipates and intervenes prematurely), babying, privacy invasion, overly praising, not letting the child take responsibility, not supporting their autonomy, psychological and behavioural control.
Is ‘helicopter parenting’ bad for children?
In the media helicopter parenting has been portrayed as singularly negative. Some behaviours characteristic of ‘helicopter parenting’, however, are completely appropriate at an early age. For example, it has been demonstrated that lots of parental involvement and anticipatory problem solving (which can be defined as “over involvement” and “overprotectiveness” in ‘helicopter parenting’), limiting autonomy to ensure safety, and behavioural control, are, in fact, associated with positive outcomes in young children.
‘Helicopter parenting’ behaviours at an early age are not sufficient on their own to trigger anxiety or depressive disorders in preschoolers. Mental health concerns in very young children are normally a result of multiple factors. The problems tend to arise when micromanagement, over-protective and over-controlling behaviours continue as the child grows and matures (together with the need for more autonomy and safe separation). This is when children become more likely to develop over-reliance on others for direction, various avoidant behaviours like difficulties with or refusing to attempt new tasks or activities, withdrawal, inhibition, extreme shyness, hesitation, and fearfulness.
Overly controlling, anxious parenting where the parent attempts to protect the child from the world, will impact on the child’s situational anxiety and behaviours when confronted with new tasks, or with the possibility of failure. Over time, this can increase chances of developing anxiety when faced with challenges such as assessments, transitioning from school to university, exams, applying to and interviewing for jobs, etc.
For example, if a child who is able to navigate their environment, who has sound motor skills, and is able to step over and climb the couch or a low chair – hears on a regular basis from her parents:
“Don’t run, you’ll fall”
“Be careful, you’ll trip”
“Don’t climb, it’s dangerous”
This child will likely internalise a view of the world that it is not very safe and should be navigated with caution and assistance, and would likely start to demonstrate avoidant and dependent behaviours. This in turn can undermine her self-esteem and belief in her ability, which in turn may lead to anxiety. So it is not surprising that for young adults, continued ‘helicopter parenting’ has been shown to result in higher rates of anxiety and depression, interpersonal dependency, poor coping, and lower levels of overall psychological well-being.
Equally important is the degree or intensity of the parental behavior. For example, asking your child “How was your day?” versus going through their diary or phone. Both are attempts at being involved in your child’s life and wanting to know what has been happening, but it is clear how the latter example becomes a form of unhealthy intrusion irrespective of the parent’s good intention.
What influences your parenting style?
There are many factors that determine how we parent; our temperament or personality style, our attachment style, how we ourselves were parented, and our life experiences. They all create a type of a parenting template that we either follow or consciously break and replace with something else. This is why it can be very useful to reflect on our parenting behaviour, not as something that is good or bad but more reflectively and productively asking ourselves:
“Why am I reacting this way?”
“What is it about this situation that makes me so worried/anxious/frustrated?”
“What are other alternatives that are available to me?”
“If I can be my best version of a parent what would it look like? What would I do more of or less of?”
There are other factors that impact on how we parent and they result from the external environment. It is important to acknowledge that there is a lot of pressure put on parents to ensure their child succeeds and does so in a particular way. The media, parenting forums, and the education system set greater and greater expectations for what a child should be able to do by a certain age even before they enter school, and what ‘good parents’ should aim for for their children.
These pressures, increase cost of living, focus on achievement rather than a meaningful and fulfilling life can contribute to higher stress, anxiety and low mood levels in both the children and the parents. No wonder parents can become over-anxious and over-involved, and continue to micro-manage, because every time their child ‘fails’ is a reflection of them not being a good parent. Society is very fond of putting all the blame on the parent’s (especially the mother’s) doorstep, diverting attention from the bigger picture, where multiple things need to be addressed and adjusted in order to create a positive change.
What parenting behaviours promote optimal development in children (according to research)?
Controlling and directing a young child’s behaviour and their environment is necessary when they are young, to ensure they are safe and secure. Parents can, however, encourage autonomy at an early age, while ensuring physical safety, but how it is done ought to be informed by the child’s temperament and developmental stage. Just like you would not put a one-year-old on the roof and suggest they explore, you would not keep your four-year-old sitting on a bench holding your hand while her/his peers are running around, jumping, and falling and getting up and repeating the sequence.
Being responsive to your child’s needs is a good thing and one of the factors that builds healthy attachment. Praising your children is also necessary because it gives positive feedback and encourages confidence and further exploratory behaviours and curiosity. It is best to praise for the effort put into doing something rather than praising for how clever the child is or praising the child only for successful completion of said task. The key is to use common sense and be aware of our own propensity to be anxious and limit our children, not because there is some actual danger but because we overreact. As the child grows, it is important to encourage independence and autonomy, to help build their confidence and belief in themselves.
Recent research on childhood anxiety has coined the term ‘challenging parent behaviours’ or CPB which proposes a parenting style that encourages children to step out of their comfort zone and push their boundaries. These parenting behaviours include physical play (particularly rough-and-tumble play), encouraging children to push their limits through exposure to safe risks, letting the child lose a game, encouraging the child to be assertive, teasing, and modelling of challenging behaviour by the parent.
Interestingly, CPB requires a significant amount of parent involvement, also a characteristic of ‘helicopter parenting’. Even when the parent is encouraging autonomy and social daring or assertiveness they are there with and for their kids. For instance, you can encourage autonomy by letting your kid play independently at the playground while you sit on a bench some distance away.
Yulia’s final thoughts
Ultimately, the best way to think about parenting is through the model of ‘attachment theory’, because attachment has been consistently proven to be THE most important aspect of parent-child interactions to predict good adjustment. You are the safe base for your child from which they can venture out and explore their world. They should feel they can move freely (not pushed or held too closely but encouraged based on what is appropriate for their developmental level), but can always come back to you to feel safe.
The ‘good enough’ parent (a concept derived from the work of paediatrician and psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicot), where the parent doesn’t parent the most, nor the least, is the best parent.
Please contact us should you wish to read further into this very interesting topic, we’ve got a list of articles used by Yulia as referencing material.