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What is Helicopter Parenting?

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The term “helicopter parent” made its first appearance in the 1990 book Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility. Predictably, the term refers to parents who “hover” around their children like helicopters, always within arms reach. Yet, while helicopter parents mean well, their domineering behavior can create a litany of emotional and development concerns in their children.

Helicopter Parenting, Defined

Helicopter parenting is typically defined as a highly involved style of parenting where the parents dictate many of the decisions, activities and schedules in a child’s life, says Dr. Mark Sharp, a clinical psychologist with the Aiki Relationship Institute in Oak Brook, Ill.

“It tends to carry a flavor of protecting children from the consequences of failure,” he explains. “Of course, there are different degrees, and sometimes helicopter parenting may be applied to some domains of a child’s life and not others. However, if present, it is often pretty prevalent across the child’s life.”

Helicopter parents also work to keep themselves involved in every aspect of a child’s life, says Dr. Sally Nazari of Chrysalis Psychological Services in Nyack, N.Y.

“Helicopter parenting refers to parenting styles that are focused on lingering on the periphery of everything children do,” she says. “With it comes a tendency to feel responsible for all of the successes, triumphs and even imperfections that their children go through.”

Does it Help…or Hurt?

Most experts agree that helicopter parenting is detrimental to a child, simply because children won’t learn how to succeed or fail on their own. The biggest issue, says Sharp, is that helicopter parenting interferes with the development of independent thinking skills.

“Quite frankly, the biggest task of growing up is children learning to figure things out for themselves. When children are protected from failure, they don’t learn basic problem solving and don’t have a chance to develop the emotional skills needed to deal with hardship,” he states.

This style of parenting can backfire and cause children to become emotionally detached from their parents. Children may feel as if they have no privacy or even feel “suffocated,” leading them to start lying or withdrawing from activities, Nazari cautions.

“If we see that they are becoming more and more distant or protective and private of their activities, we might feel an urge to pull in even closer. But this will usually backfire and have our children clam up even more,” Nazari says.

Coming In for Landing

Because helicopter parents typically feel as if their behavior benefits the child, it can be a hard habit to break.

“Helicopter parents know they can function well without their child, but are worried about their child’s ability to function without them,” says Beverly Hills psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish. “This is truly the defining point. This is not just a case of the parent thinking they can do a better job at something than their child can. It goes much deeper.”

Walfish says that children as young as 4 years old should be given responsibilities that extend beyond the basics of getting dressed and brushing their teeth.

“Even kindergarteners can make an honest attempt at making their bed before school, helping take the trash out, picking up clothes and putting wet towels in the hamper,” Walfish says. “These are not chores, by the way, that should be rewarded with a sticker or cash. These are real tasks that everyone has to learn to do for themselves.”

Of course, parents have a natural tendency to want to protect their children from pain or failure. Still, when reasonable, it’s essential that parents give their children space to fall and get back up—on their own.

“One simple, quick strategy is to pause and count to five before we follow through with taking action,” Nazari says. “This way, we can still feel like our vigilance is helpful, but we can now also give them a chance to venture out on their own.”

This simple pause helps children gain independence while recognizing that their parents will be there if needed, says Nazari.

“We can begin to see that they are so much capable than we might have given them credit for. This can give us the security, over time, to feel more comfortable backing away a bit,” she adds.

Jennifer Brozak is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh who has a passion for all things parenting and education. She contributes to a variety of local and national outlets and blogs about her family’s escapades at One Committed Mama.

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