Helicopter Parenting: What Is It & How Does It Affect Kids, Per Experts

This Is The Impact Helicopter Parenting Really Has On Kids, According To Experts

March 10, 2020 Updated August 10, 2020

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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? Guarnotta shared several. Examples of helicopter parenting include “constantly monitoring your child’s behavior and whereabouts, beyond a level that is age-appropriate (keeping your child from spending time outside 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).

Here are a few more examples of helicopter parenting in action:

  • Making demands of your child’s teacher to change her method of teaching, not because it negatively impacts your child, but because you don’t personally agree with it.
  • Meeting with the music teacher if the child doesn’t get that guitar solo in the school concert.
  • Hovering over a child as they engage in age-appropriate play.
  • Mediating conflicts between the child and a friend.
  • Doing a child’s homework or projects for them in order to boost their grade.
  • Not letting a child go on field trips for fear of injury.
  • Answering for the child when they are asked a question.
  • Inappropriately pull strings to get the child special treatment or entrance into schools and programs.
  • Making nearly every major decision from schooling, employment, to romantic partners for a child as they enter adult hood.

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 lives. 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. Elaborated Guarnotta, “Studies reveal that helicopter parenting is linked to lower levels of confidence, lower ability to cope with life stressors, and higher levels of anxiety and depression. One study also found that it was linked to less prosocial behavior and empathy in adult children of helicopter parents.”

Research has also linked children of helicopter parents to an increased risk for prescription and recreational drug use.

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. “Communicate. Share your feelings with your spouse and discuss your concerns openly, and listen intently. Work together. Set expectations, rules, disciplines, and approaches together and be willing to compromise. 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. 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. Seek help. Don’t let your differences destroy [your relationship]. Reach out to a professional if the burden on the relationship is mounting,” suggested Hofnung.

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.”

Quotes on Helicopter Parenting

“The attempt to prevent our kids from struggling for fear it might scar their permanent records is, instead, scarring them for life.” — Heather Choate Davis, author of Elijah & the SAT

“The one to whom nothing was refused, whose tears were always wiped away by an anxious mother, will not abide being offended.

“Helicopter parents. Before I started at Pirriwee Public, I thought it was an exaggeration, this thing about parents being overly involved with their kids. I mean, my mum and dad loved me, they were, like, interested in me when I was growing up in the nineties, but they weren’t, like, obsessed with me.”
― Liane Moriarty, author of Big Little Lies

“The more risks you allow children to take, the better they learn to take care of themselves.” — Roald Dahl

“I think that instead of helicoptering our kids, we should be strapping parachutes on their backs made of things like common sense, kindness, and courage. Then we should teach them to jump.” — JoelleWisler.com

“A lot of parents will do anything for their kids except let them be themselves.” — Banksy

“Wise parents prepare their children to get along without them.” — Larry Y. Wilson

“Do not handicap your children by making their lives easy.” — Robert A. Heinlein

“We all, as parents, are laughing at ourselves and helicopter parenting and saying, “This isn’t how we were parented; we were allowed to run free.’ When I talk to my friends, we are all fascinated by what we are doing, but we can’t seem to stop ourselves.” ― Liane Moriarty

“In the case of the classic Western helicopter parent, it starts with Baby Einstein and reward charts for toilet training, and it never really ends, which is why colleges have to devote so many resources to teaching parents how to leave their kids alone.” — Nancy Gibbs