Helicopter parenting was first defined in Dr. Haim Ginott’s 1969 book Parents & Teenagers, when teens brought up that their parents would hover over them like a helicopter. It’s also been called ‘lawnmower parenting,’ ‘cosseting parenting,’ and ‘bulldoze parenting.’
This kind of parenting refers to a family dynamic where the parents are overly focused on the experiences of their children, says Carolyn Daitch, Ph.D. and director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders near Detroit. Daitch says that these types of parents “typically take too much responsibility for their children’s experiences and, specifically, their successes or failures.”
Helicopter parenting has also been called ‘overparenting,’ by Ann Dunnewold, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist. “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,” says Dunnewold.
Often the term gets extended to parents who take over tasks their high school or college-aged kids are capable of doing on their own, such as talking to professors about poor grades or managing exercise habits. However, helicopter parenting can be found at any age range. “In toddlerhood, a helicopter parent might constantly shadow the child, always playing with and directing his behavior, allowing him zero alone time,” says Dunnewold. This indicates a disproportionate amount of assistance that can hinder children far more than helping them.
Michael Unger, who heads the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University says, “The point of parenting should be to grow a child who is capable of taking on adult tasks…It is always better to empower children to make good choices for themselves rather than having them remain dependent on parents to sort out problems for them.”
A few reasons some parents might hover like this over their kids is a fear of dire consequences, feelings of anxiety, overcompensation, and peer pressure.
While all parents want to protect their kids from consequences like unhappiness, struggle, and unguaranteed results, some parents become overprotective and don’t allow their children to learn and grow from these experiences, which can teach them how to cope and move forward in life with greater confidence.
Other parents can have deep feelings of worry in regards to the lives of their children—anxiety over the job market, the economy, and any number of events happening across the world. These parents have a deep desire to protect their children from being hurt or disappointed, but have forgotten the value of these lessons and how it’s better for children to face these situations so that they are better equipped to deal with them in the future.
Overparenting can compromise children’s autonomy and personal growth, leading to underdeveloped coping skills, increased anxiety, underdeveloped life skills, and decreased confidence and self-esteem. Anxiety-driven parenting can give the perception of critical attitudes by the parents, where either subtly or overtly, the child is praised when they do something good, but receives criticism or withdrawn approval when they don’t perform as well as expected, like not brining home an A on an exam. This is called “parental conditional regard” and whether it is intended or not, many children in these situations feel it’s negative effect.
Overcompensation for their own childhood can lead some parents to want to give their kids a very different life than they had. If the parent felt unloved or neglected, they want to make sure their children receive lots of attention, which can turn into excessive monitoring.
Helicopter parenting can also arise from the feeling of peer pressure an adult experiences; if they see other over-involved parents, it can put the pressure on to maintain that same level of excessive attention. “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,” says Dr. Daitch.
Usually helicopter parents have good intentions and it can be difficult to find the line between being a responsible and present parent versus being governed by fear and becoming too enmeshed in the lives of your children to the point where they aren’t able to learn how to handle failure and challenges on their own.
The best way to avoid helicopter parenting is to acknowledge and allow children to face struggle, disappointment, and failure, while helping them work through it all. Children should be given the autonomy to do tasks they are both physically and mentally able to take on.
Parenting is about building up children to be confident and self-reliant. Taking a step back every now and then to let them figure things out on their own will help them grow as human beings and you can be there to offer strength and support when they really need it.