Are You An Accidental Helicopter Parent? How To Tell (And What To Do About It)

by Becky Bracken
Originally Published: 
helicopter parenting
Jordan Rowland/Unsplash

You learn all sorts of interesting things when you become a parent. You learn how to burp your baby. You learn what to do if they get a fever, and how long it’ll be before their crusty little umbilical button falls off (ick). But in learning those things and caring for your kid, you also learn that there are different approaches to parenting. And you’ll probably want to know which one, or ones, you lean towards.

There are the four core Baumrind parenting styles — authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, uninvolved — as well as the more recent free-range, positive, and attachment parenting styles. But there are also a ton of offshoots, with more seeming to pop up every day. You’ve got your crunchy mamas, your silky mamas, your scrunchy mamas, your unicorn mamas, your bulldozer mamas, your respectful mamas and, you guessed it, your helicopter mamas.

We’ve all at least heard of helicopter parenting in passing, right? You’ve seen the silly memes poking fun at these mamas. You’ve watched as friends on Facebook joke about the helicopter parents on the playground. But what is helicopter parenting, really? And is it actually a bad thing? Let’s explore.

What is helicopter parenting?

In 1969, a psychologist by the name of Dr. Haim Ginott published the book Parents & Teenagers. In it, teens described parents who hovered over them like a helicopter as “helicopter parents.” In 1990, child development researchers Foster Cline and Jim Fay developed this idea further in their book, Parenting With Love and Logic. “They hover over and then rescue their children whenever trouble arises,” the authors wrote. “They’re forever running lunches, permission slips, band instruments, and homework assignments to school.”

By 2011, the term “helicopter parent” had become so popular that it earned its own entry in the dictionary: “a parent who is overly involved in the life of his or her child” (per Merriam-Webster).

Emily Guarnotta — a New York-based clinical psychologist who specializes in working with families on parenting and postpartum-related issues — pointed out to Scary Mommy that this over-involvement extends “beyond a point that is age-appropriate for the child.” She explained, “For example, parents of toddlers or young children should monitor their child’s behavior to ensure safety. But as children get older, parents should gradually provide more freedom and responsibility. Parents who continue to ‘hover’ by trying to control, monitor, and intervene on their children are said to be helicopter parents.”

What is an example of helicopter parenting?

Curious what helicopter parenting might look like in terms of real-life, practical application-type scenarios? Examples of helicopter parenting, per Guarnotta, include:

  • Constantly monitoring your child’s behavior and whereabouts, beyond a level that is age-appropriate (keeping your child from spending time outside of school with peers, reading your child’s journal)
  • Being preoccupied with a child’s performance in school or other activities (constantly checking your child’s grades, setting high academic standards that are difficult for your child to attain)
  • Keeping a child from age-appropriate responsibilities (not allowing your teen to stay home alone for short periods of time, not requiring your older child or teen to take on some household chores)

If you’re curious how that breaks down by age, here’s a look at some helicopter parenting examples for infants:

  • Not allowing the baby new experiences
  • Screaming loudly and getting upset at the slightest injury or tumble
  • Avoiding activities that might result in failure
  • Using the word “don’t” with frequency

Here are some helicopter parenting examples for toddlers:

  • Hovering excessively over a child as they engage in age-appropriate play
  • Not letting the child solve their own problems
  • Catching their every fall while they learn to walk
  • Letting them play unsupervised on occasion
  • Directing play all the time
  • Answering for the child when they are asked simple questions

Helicopter parenting examples for school-age children

  • Performing mealtime tasks, like cutting food or pouring water excessively for the child
  • Getting involved in disputes between your child and other kids
  • Choosing the child’s friends and social activities
  • Refusing to let them go on field trips for fear of injury
  • Inappropriately pulling strings to get the child special treatment or entrance into schools and programs
  • Making demands of your child’s teacher to change their method of teaching because you don’t personally agree with it

Helicopter parenting examples for teens:

  • Completing homework or projects for them to boost their grade
  • Cleaning up after them
  • Making excuses for their poor behaviors
  • Arranging class schedules
  • Making nearly every major decision for your teen, from schooling and employment to approving romantic partners

How is helicopter parenting different from bulldozer parenting?

Following the heavy equipment motif, there are several other parenting styles that sound similar — but have distinctive differences. “Bulldozer parenting is closely related to helicopter parenting but differs in that bulldozer parents take actions to prevent their child from experiencing negative consequences,” said Guarnotta. “Helicopter parents, on the other hand, make efforts to monitor and control their children.”

Guarnotta fleshed this out using the example of a child who misbehaves in school and is given detention. “A bulldozer parent may react by contacting the school and trying to change the punishment. In the same situation, a helicopter parent may accept the school’s punishment and also implement their own punishments. While it is healthy and appropriate to punish a child for their negative behavior, a helicopter parent will take this to an extreme.”

You may also hear bulldozer parenting referred to as snowplow or lawnmower parenting. The gist is the same with all three terms — this type of parent has a tendency to “mow down” or “bulldoze” any obstacles in their child’s life. A recent example of this that was all over the news? The celebrity college admissions scandal, where wealthy parents like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were accused of doing things like paying to have their kids’ SAT scores doctored or athletic accomplishments fabricated to get their kids into prestigious universities.

What is the difference between attachment parenting and helicopter parenting?

Put your thinking cap on, Mama, ’cause this gets a little confusing. So, helicopter parenting and attachment parenting are often used interchangeably, just as attachment parenting and attachment theory are often used interchangeably. However, there are crucial nuances in all three that make them vastly different from a parenting perspective.

“Helicopter parenting is not described in the attachment theory literature and is a relatively new concept,” underscored educator and Your Parenting Mojo podcast creator Jen Lumanlan. She also noted that attachment theory is different from attachment parenting, “whose founders have written that they piggybacked on the word ‘attachment’ as a way to gain traction.”

So, what separates these three? Let’s start with attachment theory. According to Greater Good Magazine, which is published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, attachment theory emerged in the 1930s through the work of an English psychiatrist by the name of John Bowlby. Upon observing that babies deprived of affection or with nonexistent caregiving often developed into troubled children, he came to believe that children need to form a “small hierarchy of attachments” to develop successfully. These “secure attachments” are rooted in warm, intimated, comforting influences — things that make a child feel safe enough to explore, grow, express their feelings, and other healthy aspects of development.

This leads us to attachment parenting, a term coined by pediatrician William Sears and registered nurse Martha Sears. This is defined by what they refer to as the Baby Bs: “birth bonding, breastfeeding, baby-wearing, bedding close to the baby, belief in the baby’s cry, balance, and boundaries, and beware of baby trainers.” The implication here is that doing these things will lead to a secure attachment, part of the scientific theory developed by Bowlby. Secure attachments do result in positive outcomes for children — but the Searses’ Baby Bs aren’t guarantors of secure attachment. For example, just breastfeeding isn’t enough to form a secure attachment if Mom is disengaged while doing it. Alternately, a tender and loving bottle-feeding session can form secure attachment. It’s the quality of the interaction between child and caregiver that helps the child’s emotional regulation and development.

What does all of this have to do with helicopter parenting? Well, since people often assume attachment theory and attachment parenting are the same things and that attachment parenting and helicopter are the same things, the overarching assumption is that attachment theory and helicopter parenting are the same (told you this gets confusing). But where attachment theory is about a child forming secure attachments so they feel confident and safe enough to explore and exert their independence, helicopter parenting is a form of over-parenting that actually stunts a child’s independence.

Does helicopter parenting work?

Here’s the truth: We all have moments of helicopter parents. But as a general rule of thumb, this isn’t a parenting style one should necessarily embrace or strive to adopt. It isn’t really considered an effective parenting approach.

“Over the last decade, we have seen that these parenting styles tend to result in young adults who can’t cope with failure, because they never learned how to fail in childhood when the stakes were low,” shared Lumanlan. “They rely excessively on parental guidance and cannot make even simple decisions without consulting a parent. They may rely on parents to negotiate their grade increases with the young adult’s college professors, or even engage in salary negotiations with potential employers.”

What are the effects of helicopter parenting on a child?

As you probably gathered from Lumanlan’s insight on the efficacy of helicopter parenting, this approach certainly tends to have negative effects on children as they grow older. According to Guarnotta, studies reveal that helicopter parenting is linked to:

What if one parent is a helicopter parent and the other is not?

Obviously, no two parents are exactly alike. That means that more likely than not, you and your partner will vary at least a little in your parenting styles. Sometimes this makes life easier — you have the capacity to play to each other’s strengths. Sometimes it makes life more difficult — you might disagree on fundamental issues. To ensure the best outcome with parents who have two different styles, we sought advice from Ori Hofnung, founder and CEO of GiantLeap, a tool created in conjunction with the Texas Medical Center to make child development easier to understand for parents.

According to Hofnung, there are five steps you can take if you have different parenting approaches:

  1. Communicate. “Share your feelings with your spouse and discuss your concerns openly, and listen intently.”
  2. Work together. “Set expectations, rules, disciplines, and approaches together and be willing to compromise.”
  3. Support each other. “Don’t undermine your partner’s decisions and don’t disagree in front of the kids. Instead, back each other up to convey alignment.”
  4. Be consistent. “Regardless of the approach you and your spouse take, be consistent. As long as you are together, you will find an approach that works to strengthen and help your family.”
  5. Seek help. “Don’t let your differences destroy [your relationship]. Reach out to a professional if the burden on the relationship is mounting.”

Just don’t lose sight of the fact you’re ultimately in this together. Emphasized Hofnung, “It is important to note that this is not a matter of who is right or wrong but rather if you are together on the same team.”

What should you do if you realize you’re a helicopter parent?

Raise your hand if, at this point in the article, you’re feeling as though you might fall under this category of parenting (*raises hand*). The good news is this clearly means you love your child. The bad news is that love may be manifesting in ways that are detrimental to your child’s growth.

“Helicopter parents often try to minimize all risks in their child’s life. This overprotectiveness may be a natural impulse for parents, but we need to resist the urge. Independence and risk-taking are hugely beneficial for your child’s development,” said Chris Drew, university teacher and founder of The Helpful Professor.

So, how do you self-correct? Recommended Drew, “Next time your child strikes out on their own, ask yourself: What is the worst-case scenario, and what are the potential benefits? If the worst case is a grazed knee or five minutes of tears, then that’s not a bad trade-off for the self-confidence and self-management skills that your child may get from the experience. If we don’t let our children take measured risks and be independent, we’re doing them a disservice.”

What are the causes of helicopter parenting?

Here’s the straight truth: You cannot protect your children from life’s disappointments and failures. And a little setback here and there can be a good thing for our kids. Helicopter parenting is about control. Parents who tend to power-parent are dealing with their own fears and anxieties about the unknown.

“Helicopter parents may need to first give themselves a break — of course they want to protect their sons and daughters from the world’s perils,” Indiana University psychologist Chris Meno said in her research on helicopter parenting. “But they need to follow this with considering the vital role of developing independence in their child.”

Peer pressure and the desire to compete with other parents can also fuel a helicopter parenting style.

How can you avoid helicopter parenting?

Getting out of the helicopter parenting habit is relatively easy. The Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando recommends it’s a good idea, whenever possible, to step back and let kids take on tasks by themselves. That includes:

  • Schoolwork
  • Social situations
  • Shoe-tying and other essential tasks
  • Age-appropriate chores to do around the house so they feel like they’re helping

Oh and that tight, over-regimented activity schedule? Ditch it. Arnold Palmer Hospital recommends letting kids get bored. “This unstructured time teaches kids that they have to make their own decisions on how to resolve their boredom, leading to more self-reliance, creativity, and play,” the hospital advises.

Are there any benefits to helicopter parenting?

The research around the subject of helicopter parenting has reached the consensus that helicopter parenting is bad for kids and parents alike. Kids develop a weird combination of fear of failure and entitled narcissism. Indiana University’s Meno sees college kids who have been helicopter-parented exhibit increased levels of anxiety and depression.

“When children aren’t given the space to struggle through things on their own, they don’t learn to problem-solve very well,” Meno said. “They don’t learn to be confident in their own abilities, and it can affect their self-esteem.”

Helicopter parented kids also never learned how to fail, she explained. “The other problem with never having to struggle is that you never experience failure and can develop an overwhelming fear of failure and of disappointing others,” Meno said. “Both the low self-confidence and the fear of failure can lead to depression or anxiety.”

Adults engaged in hyper-vigilant helicopter parenting are likely to be acting out on their own issues, according to Chris Segrin a researcher at the University of Arizona who studies parenting styles. “I sometimes see, especially in mothers, that they define their whole universe as ‘mother’ – not spouse, not wife, not worker, not hobbyist but ‘mother,'” Segrin said. “I think those blurred boundaries between parent and child can be harmful to the psychological landscape of the parent.”

He suggests these parents would be well served by addressing their own needs and finding other outlets to strive for success and perfection. “We need the parents to realize they have some element of their own life – whether it’s their career, their personal relationships, their hobbies – that’s independent of their role as a parent, so they don’t get caught up in this trap of wanting to just keep parenting their children until they’re 40 years old,” Segrin said.

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