Although helicopter parents have earned quite a negative reputation in mainstream media, researchers have not found consistently negative outcomes in children. Some studies actually found that this parenting style could produce favorable results in grown children due to the parents’ intense support1.
The inconsistency is mainly caused by the fact that “helicopter parenting” is not a well defined construct in psychology. Unlike the four Baumrind parenting styles, there isn’t an universally agreed upon definition on what constitutes helicopter parenting. As a result, various studies using different definitions arrived at different conclusions on its effects.
Fortunately, by inspecting the different interpretations, researchers have found that it’s not the amount of involvement, but the type of involvement, that determines whether the “helicoptering” will benefit or harm the child2.
This is good news to protective parents because they can fine-tune their parenting into the type that helps, and not impedes, their children’s development into healthy adults.
What is a Helicopter Parent?
Helicopter parents are loosely defined as parents who pay excessive attention to their children’s every move and experience. They are highly involved parents who tirelessly oversee every aspect of their children’s life and sometimes even act on their behalf.
These parents are so named because they hover over their children and make noise like a helicopter, and they swoop in to rescue the kids at the first sign of trouble.
Originally, the term “helicopter parent” signals that the parent is among the Baby Boomers (i.e. born between 1940s to 1960s), and the children are members of the Millennial generation (born between 1980s to 2000s). This term gained attention and notoriety in the early 2000s just as the millennials began reaching college age. College admission officials and professors started experiencing the parents’ intrusive behavior and denouncing it publicly.
These parents are infamous for practices such as sitting in on the child’s admission interview, calling the school at 11pm to report a mouse in their child’s dorm room, and complaining to the professor about a disappointing grade their child has received. Hovering parents cannot let go of their kids3.
Nowadays, this term is also used to describe parents of any generation who show excessive monitoring and protective behavior in ways inappropriate for their child’s developmental stage.
Signs of A Helicopter Parent
One of the characteristic signs of helicopter parents is that they micromanage their children’s life. While young children do require parents’ supervision, control and guidance to learn the rules of the world, these parents do it at a developmentally inappropriate level.
Helicopter parents monitor their children constantly. They control their children’s behavior and insist on helping with tasks their children should be capable of doing alone. When their children face the slightest obstacle, they dive in to rescue immediately.
Here are some examples of helicopter parenting in different stages of a child’s life.
In toddlerhood, a helicopter parent might shadow the child incessantly. When the child plays with a new toy, the parent shows them the “right” way to play with it and correct them if the child tries to use it in a different way. The child doesn’t have the space or opportunity to try and figure things out on their own. When the child plays with other kids, the parent directs the child’s behavior and how they should interact with others.
Falling and getting scratches are a normal part of toddlerhood as the child learns to walk, but a helicopter parent hovers over their toddlers to avoid any minor accident. A mildly scraped knee can stress out the parent intensely.
In elementary school, a helicopter parent may ensure their child enters a certain school or gets a certain teacher. They not only supervise, but also help their child complete their homework or projects.
A helicopter parent selects their children’s friends and activities for them. Their kids’ preferences are usually not taken into account because they believe they know what’s the best for their children.
In high school, a helicopter parent might take on the responsibility of researching and selecting the universities for their child to apply to. They watch over their kids’ college application process. They may even call the admission office for an explanation if their child has not gotten into their dream college.
In college, the parent might request an extension for their child or complete assignments for them. They contact the president of the university, the dean, or the professor to dispute their child’s grade. They may even attend job fairs and interview with their child4.
The Effects of Helicopter Parents
Despite the lopsided negative portrayal in popular media, a number of studies have found both positive and negative results associated with helicopter parenting.
Educators have long accepted that parental participation in the educational experiences of their children is critical to a student’s intellectual and emotional development, and academic success5.
Research has found that a parent’s involvement fosters more positive attitudes in the child toward school, improves homework habits, reduces absenteeism and dropping out, and enhances academic achievement6.
At the university level, some studies have noted parental involvement has positive impacts on student development areas such as alcohol, decision making skills, life skills, health issues, and career development7.
Intense support from these parents in areas including financial, advice and emotional has also proven to be valuable. Grown children who have received such intense support have better psychological adjustment and life satisfaction compared to those who have not.
Despite the findings on parental involvement, multiple studies have indicated that parental over-involvement can result in children’s mental health problems.
Children whose parents involve in their education at developmentally inappropriate levels are found to have worse psychological well-being. They are more prone to anxiety and depression, and substance abuse8.
Adolescents and emerging adults are particularly affected. These children are shielded from the difficulties in realities since they were little kids. Studies have found that they tend to be more neurotic and dependent on others. They have lower self-esteem and less coping skills to deal with problems in everyday lives9.
In adult children, helicopter parenting is also associated with higher levels of narcissism and sense of entitlement10.
Because parents are the driving force behind education seeking, children of helicopter parents have extrinsic motivation to learn, which is found to be associated with lower academic performance11.
Is Helicopter Parenting Good or Bad
So why is there a big divergence in the results of helicopter parenting studies?
On the surface, it seems the amount or the level of a parent’s involvement could be the determining factor in whether such engagement would benefit their child.
But it turns out the discrepancies between different findings lie in the type of parental involvement as perceived by the child. This phenomenon can be explained by the Self-determination Theory.
According to the Self-determination Theory, there are three basic human psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness12.
When these needs are met, an individual experiences better health and well-being. They are intrinsically motivated to achieve and able to undergo growth and development13.
A supportive family environment, one that provides autonomous support to the child can satisfy those needs. Autonomy supportive parents allow children to take an active role in solving their own problems, leading to competence which means feeling confident in their ability to effectively interact with their environment. This type of parenting leads to better social and emotional adjustment in children. On the other hand, a family environment that doesn’t allow autonomy cannot meet those needs14.
Being autonomy supportive doesn’t mean allowing the child to behave any way they want. It means the child perceives the parent as non-controlling and they encourage autonomy.
“Helicoptering” can be beneficials if the child experiences it as supportive and not controlling. But if the child perceives the parent as controlling, it doesn’t matter whether the parent is supportive because without autonomy, the child won’t flourish in their development.
How To Stop Helicopter Parenting
Most helicopter parents have good intentions. They want their children to be healthy, happy and successful. They want to help and support their kids in this journey.
However, when parents make success their parenting priority and become overly involved, their “help” or “support” becomes controlling.
To stop helicopter parenting, draw the line between helping and controlling. It’s great to be a helpful and supportive parent as long as we don’t cross the line and start directing, or worse dictating, our children’s every move.
A bad grade, a wrong college or a botched job interview will not ruin our kids’ future. On the contrary, they are great lessons our children can learn from, with our guidance and support.
Being a controlling parent not only impacts the child’s wellbeing negatively, but it also causes a rift in the parent-child relationship. A warm, caring and happy childhood is actually the best predictor of a child’s future success.
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