In parenting and professional circles, the phrase “helicopter parenting” has become a bit of a buzzword in recent decades. It refers to a parenting style with a mindset of prevention and rescue. This kind of parenting is most common with mothers but fathers, too, may have a compulsive need to help their child out of tough situations. So are you a helicopter parent?
You might be a helicopter parent if…
…you spend more time worrying about your child’s problems than your own
…you will do anything to help your child out of a tough situation
…you would always rather do something yourself than let your child fail
…you find yourself constantly making changes to your schedule to accommodate your child’s mistakes (e.g. regularly going to work late because your child forgot something)
…you always worry about your child’s future
Jumping in to care for your child when they are hurting or about to be hurt is natural and certainly not wrong; attentive caring is a part of healthy parenting and you clearly do care about your child’s well-being. However, without balance, this “helicopter parenting” approach can cause more harm than good because not every situation requires a rescue. Think of it like teaching your child to swim. Often they show signs of panic in their first encounters with swimming. If that initial fear pulls the child out of swim lessons, then they never learn to swim. But a child who is encouraged to keep trying can get some encouraging coaching, and pick up the skills they need to keep themselves afloat. One of the most painful lessons of parenting, helicopter parenting or not, is this:
It is impossible to prevent your child from experiencing pain.
Whether they deal with bullying or being bullied, struggling at school to learn, or finding it harder than others to make friends, we all would love to save their sweet little hearts from feeling fear, rejection, or disappointment. However, there is an important silver lining to not being able to prevent these pains:
Challenging, painful experiences can help a child learn priceless skills like
resilience, conflict resolution, and self-esteem.
Children who do not get to stretch their problem-solving muscles may find it harder to bounce back from disappointment and may even internalize bad situations as their fault instead of learning how to externalize the parts that are not their responsibility. When that protective “mama bear” or “papa bear” instinct kicks in, it can be hard to allow your child that opportunity. Of course, even with the perspective of giving children the freedom that they can handle, parents are around for a reason! There are plenty of situations when a parent is needed for more than emotional support and must have a sense of urgency and action. So how do you know when to intervene in your child’s life and when to let them navigate hurdles on their own?
A situation probably requires intervention if there is:
- Physical harm or risk of physical harm.
- Repeated emotional violations.
- An intense, persistent gut instinct that something is wrong.*
*Helicopter parenting tendencies may see even a shallow pool as a riptide. The best way to calibrate your perspective and get out of helicopter parenting mode is to take a moment to calm your sense of danger and anxiety before jumping into rescue mode. What may have seemed perilous in the first place may be the child trying a new technique or practicing existing skills. Your sense of calm translates to your child’s sense of confidence.
On the other hand, maybe the situation does not meet the criteria of when to intervene. So what is a recovering helicopter parenting addict supposed to do?
How to Recover from Helicopter Parenting
- Acknowledge your own feelings of stress and anxiety.
A commonality among helicopter parents is fear. You have legitimate concerns that escalate into fear and anxiety. Sometimes all you can think about is the worst case scenario. Alternatively, you may be a perfectionist who is worried about what happens if your child gets hurt or does something wrong — making you feel like a failed parent. Working through this level of stress is scary and you may find it is routed in your own trauma or patterns of self-talk. Try to take a few deep breaths and find a more freedom-oriented solution to the situation. If that repeatedly does not work, consider talking to a professional about the level of anxiety you experience. Stress is hard on the body and it is also hard on those around you so learning to reduce it can only lead to a healthier situation.
- Process the worst case scenario.
This may seem counter-intuitive, especially if you struggle with anxiety, but here’s the thing: failing a class, missing a field trip, or losing a friend are all tragic experiences but they are not life-or-death. Another way to think of it is this: the consequences for this present mistake are probably less costly than an adult version of the same mistake later. A child who misses a field trip because their project was not turned in will deal with sadness and disappointment, but they will not lose their job and salary. Rescuing your child from such a simple consequence robs them of an early lesson that may help them later.
- Process the situation with your child.
This does not mean unload your fears and anxiety on your child. Instead, communicate to your child in calm and clear terms your assessment of the situation and consequences. The idea is not to promote fear or panic but instead to give them a perspective they may not yet have. Most importantly, say and act in a way that is empowering and helpful instead of enabling or debilitating. For instance, try something like, “Joe, I want you to go over to your friend’s house and have so much fun. I am concerned about you having time to enjoy yourself and get your homework done. I have not seen you start your project for next week. What are you planning to do to take care of it?” If it really is a situation in which you need to help your child learn self-control, turn your compassion on high. Your insight and empathy can teach your child how to be empathetic to others in pain. Acknowledge their situation and frustration and give them a clear understanding of their responsibility.
- Make the most of this learning opportunity.
Kids needs to work out their emotional muscles and learn how to navigate tough situations. Unfortunately, sometimes worried parents will hold children back from this opportunity for fear of pain, fear of failure, or even the belief that their child is not capable of handling the situation. Whether or not the latter is true, this is the message that children often receive when they are not allowed to face their own consequences. This reaction makes sense and is not entirely irrational; no parent wants to see their baby go through the same pain that they once had to deal with. However, recent studies encourage old-fashioned, free play because it fosters self-control which is key in social negotiation. Whether in play or other situations, when parents cannot or do not intervene, vital problem solving skills can develop. In fact, you may be surprised how well your son or daughter navigates having a toy taken away or the sad day their best friend chooses a new friend. Ultimately, the ability to deal with hard situations fosters a sense of confidence and self-esteem, not to mention a sense of responsibility — all of which are important in adulthood.
Your initial reaction to remove what is causing pain or stress can be life-saving and let your child know that you are there for them. Just keep in mind that sometimes that strong instinct can overshadow your child’s opportunity to grow into a more emotionally adept human being. With a little awareness and practice, you can hone your helicopter parenting into a more helpful instinct that can be of the most benefit to your child’s natural development and teach your child conflict resolution. If you, like many parents, find that the anxiety surrounding your child is high or that your child always seems to need your help, it may be a good idea to consult with a professional about how to balance the scales in your parenting style. We have some wonderful family-oriented therapists on our staff who are confident in helping you navigate these risky waters, whether you are co-parenting or a single parent.
About Jennine Estes, MFT
Think of me as your relationship consultant, I'm your neutral third party that can help you untangle the emotions and help you figure out what's really going on. I am a Marriage and Family Therapist in San Diego, CA. Certified in Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples. Supervisor. I write relationship and self growth advice for my column Relationships in the Raw. Creator of #BeingLOVEDIs campaign. MFC#47653