We know that as children grow, there are certain developmental milestones that they should be reaching. While it is important for parents and caregivers to monitor this progress, it can become unhealthy for both the parent and the child when parents begin monitoring every aspect of their kids’ lives.

What is helicopter parenting?

The term, “helicopter parent” first appeared in 1969, in child psychologist and psychotherapist Dr. Haim Ginott’s book, Between Parent & Teenager. It was used by a sixteen-year-old boy, interviewed for the book, who described his mother as being so overly involved in his life, that she hovered over him like a helicopter. By 2011 the term had gained so much popularity that it was added as a dictionary entry.

Three types of behaviours are common in helicopter parents [1]:

  1. Information seeking: needing to be excessively aware of your child’s daily schedule and activities, and involved in every aspect of their lives.
  2. Direct intervention: inserting yourself into conflicts your children may face with friends, roommates, romantic partners, and even bosses.
  3. Autonomy limiting: preventing your children from making their own mistakes, controlling their lives, and not supporting their decisions

Helicopter parenting becomes more problematic as children become young adults and should be at a point in their lives where they are making decisions on their own.

Why does helicopter parenting happen?

This form of over-parenting can be examined on the level of the individual. Each day, we are more clearly seeing the impact of how our own experiences influence our behaviour, and how this can trickle down through generations, manifesting in different ways. Parents and caregivers who may have felt neglected or unloved as children themselves may be more likely to helicopter parent, excessively monitoring their own children as a way to compensate. Helicopter parenting might also sometimes occur when parents worry about how their children may react to negative experiences, such as failing an exam, or not getting a part in the school play. To prevent this, parents become overly involved. Anxiety is another reason that caregivers sometimes resort to over-parenting. In the face of worry, some parents may become over involved in their children’s lives as a way to protect them. And, in the age of social media and being able to see what others are doing, some parents may rely on excessive attention and monitoring to show others that they are good or involved parents. Guilt often plays a prominent role in this.

Some believe that helicopter parenting has been caused by higher-level, societal impacts. In a book published this year, Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids, economists Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti examine how economic inequality has impacted parenting styles around the world. Their research shows that in places with increasing economic inequality, such as modern day North America, parents are more likely to push their children towards a path of success. This is a substantial change from the 1960’s and 70’s, when hands-off parenting was more common. The trend now sees more parents frantically overscheduling their children’s lives, and becoming involved to a detriment, in order to ensure their children are successful.

Potential risks of over-parenting

By becoming overly involved in our children’s lives, we may put them in situations where they are not able to learn from their mistakes. Many parents, like Kristy, a Calgary mother of two young boys, know how difficult it is to see their children struggle, but recognize the value in the lessons they learn: “It kills me to knowingly watch them make mistakes, but if I do everything for them, although it might be easier for all of us, it really does prevent them from learning to be independent people on their own.”

We want to be engaged in our children’s lives, making them feel loved and confident in who they are, while at the same time giving them the independence to grow and learn from their mistakes so that they understand how to cope with failures or challenges they will face later in life.

Finding balance

It’s difficult to walk the fine line between being supportive towards your kids and hovering too much. But, as with many things in life, finding a balance is key. While parents need to be involved in their children’s lives, being excessively controlling and overprotective can lead to increased anxiety and actually hinder their ability to develop into an adult who can confidently make decisions and feel empowered in their lives.

As Kristy attests: “It’s tough, because my kids are both still little. I try to let them have as much independence as is appropriate for their ages, but still am very involved in their lives right now. Once they are older, I hope my husband and I are able to let them face more challenges on their own, being available for them if the need us, but keeping a healthy distance so that they can learn and grow.”

To avoid helicopter parenting, let your children do the tasks that they are physically and mentally capable of doing. As difficult as it can be, letting your children struggle a bit, be disappointed at times, and work through challenges helps them recognize their abilities, learn to cope with stress, and builds their resiliency.

Looking for help to build your parenting skills? Parent Link Centers, developed by The Government of Alberta, offer a network of 59 locations that provide parents and caregivers with free resources and support. Qualified on-site staff deliver parenting programs, share information about child development, and help families deal with parenting and family issues.

[1] https://www.anxiety.org/helicopter-parenting-associated-with-anxiety-in-young-adults

Help make sure every child in the Calgary area has the tools they need to thrive. 

Find out how.