Louise Stanger is a speaker, educator, licensed clinician, social worker, certified daring way facilitator and interventionist who uses an invitational intervention approach to work with complicated mental health, substance abuse, chronic pain and process addiction clients.
In the 1969 best-selling book titled “Between Parent and Teenager,” Dr. Hiam Ginott coined the term helicopter parentwhen he described a teen complaining that his “mother hovers over me like a helicopter.” Since that fateful day, scholars and the popular press have made the noun a common term used in our lexicon (it was even immortalized in the hit TV show Portlandia with a clip that has garnered over 200,000 hits on YouTube).
It’s important to note that no parent sets out to be overly involved in their child’s life, or to create a young adult that is incapable of launching him or herself into the world. Parents start out wanting a better life for their offspring. In their zeal to be helpful and protective, they often overly insert themselves into their children’s lives, scheduling play dates and activities, doing homework, making their beds, cleaning their rooms, choosing which courses they take, and bailing them out emotionally and financially. “Over-parenting took off in the ‘90s and manifested itself as a combination of excessive anxiety, unrealistic achievement goals, and old fashioned spoiling,” says Cristen Conger, author of The Five Signs of Overparenting.
As helicopter parenting builds, the parent gets further involved in their child’s life, often to the point of being hyper protective. In this instance, when the child falls down, the parent is so overly involved that they shield the child from experiencing pain. The same goes for emotional pain, such as when everyone wins a medal during a competition so no one has to feel like they came in second place.
The five red flags of modern over-parenting will help you better understand the impact of this style of parenting, and how to overcome it.
- With the advent of modern technology, children as young as nine are now equipped with cellphones allowing parents to track their (almost) every move. I’ve observed parents who feel a false sense of security when they pay for their young adult child to have a cellphone, because the parent believes they are keeping the child on an electronic leash. In my professional experience, I see young adults who battle substance abuse disorders use their phones to further their substance abuse (direct contact with their drug connection), while this so-called leash does nothing to enable healthy connection between the child and parent.
- Somewhere along the way folks have forgotten the value of free time and creative play. A University of Maryland study found a 25% drop in kids free playtime from 1981-1987, and an increase in their homework. Think about the children and parents you know in your daily life. More often than not they are being driven around after school to various enrichment activities and sports, or are glued to a digital device. What happened to looking at the sky, doodling, cardboard boxes, or simply using the imagination?
- Let’s face it – not everyone deserves a trophy. In our over-parenting world, our desire to boost our child’s self esteem has made ribbons and trophies Big Business. The psychology goes like this: if I am always terrific – worthy of a medal – then when I mess up, it’s hard to know who I am. A landmark study in 2007 from Columbia University found that “kids [who are] continually told they are smart tend to avoid activities where they don’t excel.” These kids are missing out on experimentation and opportunities to try new things. This is the key to sports – children learn that missing the ball or losing the game is fundamental to life, and the important thing is to learn from the mistake and bravely move forward.
- Have you witnessed parents turn on and rant against teachers, coaches, and even other children? When parents find themselves fighting with principals, nannies and their children’s friends, they may have crossed the line into armed warfare. By doing the fighting, they teach their child that they (the parent) will always fix their problems. Experts state parents should allow their kids to resolve peer conflicts and not immediately intervene to diffuse situations. This way adolescent children can learn how to problem solve on their own. On top of this, a parent yelling at another adult undermines the other adult’s authority. While it’s understandable that parents do not relish in seeing their children in disagreements or disappointments, it also is not their job to serve as defense attorneys on their kids’ behalf.
- Today approximately 3.4 million young adult children are dubbed ‘boomerang children’ – they went out into the world and then boomeranged back home after college. While this may be partially attributed to the economic collapse in 2008 and several years of fallout after, we also know that many young adults do not know how to venture out on their own. Leaving home is considered a rite of passage in the United States. As a mother of a young college graduate, I did everything to communicate to my daughter she needed to leave and be self-supporting. I even used Feng Shui in a manner that suggested it was time to leave the nest!
I believe parents of all ages can relate to the above experiences. The truth of the matter is that rearing a child and seeing him or her off into adulthood is no easy task. The key is to strike a balance, set healthy boundaries, and communicate unconditional love to the child.
Here are a few suggestions to avoid helicopter parent pitfalls:
- Turn away from hovering over your child by letting them do activities on their own. For example, give them age appropriate household chores. Children as early as age four can pick their own clothes, make a sandwich, sort socks, fold towels, help set the table, put clothes in the laundry basket, put toys away, etc.
- Allow your child to feel their feelings. It’s not about putting worry on your child’s back, rather, it’s giving them the opportunity to feel and react to their emotions. To help them further understand their feelings, buy a Feeling Chart and explore with your child the various emotions – happy, sad, angry, baffled, confused, etc. Discuss what those feelings look and feel like, and how they might work through them.
- Allow your child to live their life. If you orbit around your soccer star son and he does not make the team, you may unconsciously make him feel worse as he may feel like a disappointment to you. Live your life and let your child live theirs.
- It is a good thing to congratulate your child when they do well, and to reprimand them when they do bad, but avoid specific labels for your child. Labels can set up a self-fulfilling prophecy that is unhealthy for the child. For example, if your child did something good in school, he or she deserves a compliment. However, if he or she messes up, that does not mean he or she is terminally “bad,” so it is important to differentiate doingsomething bad vs.beingbad. No child is bad, but they occasionally may (like all people) do bad things.
- Do let children express themselves. Don’t take it personally if your child doesn’t agree with you or when he or she does things differently; they have their own opinions (even in political elections). Let them express their views and listen to how they came to make their choices
- Set boundaries and act from a place of love and compassion. Your child is not your best friend or confidant. Healthy boundaries keep your child safe. You are the adult; it is not your child’s responsibility to take on your struggles and issues.
- Remember to embrace and take responsibility for your life. Be sure to take care of yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually or in ways that are consistent with your values. Sit down, relax, breathe and give yourself the time and space to put your feet up.
- Ask your other caretakers what your child does when you are not around. Grandchildren may be more adventurous when spending time with their grandparents (or even the sitter). Discover how they behave when you are not around, and take note of what is different.
- Let your child fight his or her own battles. Elementary school parents walk a fine line between letting their little ones learn to play on the playground, and calling another parent to complain about their child’s behavior. Keep it simple, and before you act: ask yourself what kind of lesson you’re teaching your child through your actions.
- As long as your child is not in danger or dying, count to ten before you put your Superman cape on to rescue them. Sometimes the only way to learn a task is by having to do it. If everything is done for your child, no matter what their age, they will not learn. Let your child struggle – it’s healthy and productive and innate to living a full life.
- Write down a pretend resume for your child of all the things that he or she can do on their own. Then get out of the way and let your child do them!
- Allow you child whether they are ages 3, 4, 17 or 67 to be the person they were meant to be. Keep Falling Up!