Helicopter parenting has become something of a dirty word in parenting circles.
It’s understandable that parents want to do everything they can to keep their children safe and to help guide them in life.
But experts are increasingly warning there can be a fine line between keeping them out of harm’s way – for example, stopping them from running in a road – and not letting them do anything without breathing down their neck and anxiously hovering three feet away. Or constantly doing everything for them.
What actually is a helicopter parent?
How might this parenting style impact children?
According to Verywell Family, there are some positives to helicopter parenting – for instance, you’re more likely to know where your kids are (important from a safety perspective), and how they’re doing at school, meaning if they start to struggle, you can offer support.
But studies have found that over-controlling parenting can impact children’s development – and not in a good way.
One study found being an over-controlling parent of a two-year-old meant they were more likely to have poorer emotional and behavioural regulation by the time they reached five.
What’s more, children who had better emotional regulation when they were five were less likely to have emotional or social problems when they turned 10.
Another study by University College London found that adults who perceived their parents as more caring and less psychologically controlling during their childhood were likely to be happier and more satisfied throughout their lives.
In this instance, examples of being ‘psychological controlling’ included not allowing children to make their own decisions, invading their privacy and fostering dependence.
Dr Jenna Vyas-Lee, clinical psychologist and co-founder of mental health clinic Kove, regularly encounters parents struggling to let go of over-monitoring their children.
While she always advocates for parents to care, look after and nurture their children, she warns there has to be a balance, and is a firm believer that so-called helicopter parenting is creating problems with children’s resilience.
“It’s about building up a tolerance for the things being hard or difficult – if you never fall, or if every time someone catches you, where is the resilience building?” she asks.
Signs you’re a helicopter parent
First of all, there’s no shame in being a helicopter parent because, let’s face it, we just want what’s best for our children and, for a lot of us, that is to keep them safe and happy, and to help them do well in life.
Here are some examples of helicopter parenting in action:
You constantly supervise and correct your child, without letting them figure things out.
You’re over-protective of them.
You are overly-involved in their school performance or sports and put a lot of pressure on them to do well.
You have very strict rules for your children.
You constantly worry about their safety.
Dr Vyas-Lee asks you to think about whether you feel burnt out and guilty most of the time, and whether you know more about your child’s relationships than your own relationships with friends. Are you also spending a lot of time doing school projects and Googling maths?
“If the answer is a resounding yes, then it’s time to stop. You are helicopter parenting,” she adds.
How to ease off being a helicopter parent
You can still be watchful of your children to make sure they’re ok, but while being more cautious earlier in their life is important, we need to give ourselves permission to back off as they grow up.
As an expert in child psychology and mental health, Dr Vyas-Lee urges parents to “do less”.
She says while historically there was a lack of research and pressure to look into alternative ways of parenting, it suddenly “exploded” – and “literally overnight a generation of new parents bought a ‘parenting book’ and it became the holy grail”.
The problem is there are a lot of parenting books out there – all with conflicting information. “This morning I Googled parenting books and Google presented me with 887,000,000 results in 0.53 seconds,” she explains.
“Basically there is way too much confusion around what we should be doing and how we do it. Although there is one clear message: you must act, because if you don’t, you’ll ruin your children, they will be emotionally stunted.”
Her advice is relatively simple: put down the books, delete the podcasts, stop following every single parenting social media account, and do a bit of experimenting.
She recommends asking yourself: what actually happens if I watch my own TV programme or see my friends? Or what happens if I do some exercise instead of managing my children?
“Just start there and then follow your own instinct,” she suggests.
The psychologist says it’s useful to be reminded that allowing our kids to fail is actually good for them – and, indeed, she notices that parents “find it completely liberating when they’re told this” in her clinic.
“Their family dynamic changes for the better, and soon everyone begins enjoying each other’s company again,” she concludes.