The Impact of “Helicopter Parenting”
As a parent, you love your children and want only what’s best for them. There’s nothing wrong with that, right? After all, isn’t it your job as a parent to protect and provide for your child? The answer isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Protecting and providing for your children are, of course, two of your most important jobs as a parent. But what’s in your child’s best interest may not always be for your child to have only the best. In fact, it probably isn’t.
In recent years, professionals have increasingly noticed the impact “over-parenting,” or what has come to be colloquially termed “helicopter parenting.” Helicopter parents are over-protective. They want to make sure their children never experience discomfort. They rush to their children’s rescue whenever an unpleasant situation arises, whether it be at school, with friends, or in public. Sometimes they even go so far as to try to protect their adult children by running interference with their “unfair” bosses. They do everything in their power to make sure that all obstacles are removed from their children’s way, preferably before their children have to deal with them. They take their jobs of protecting and providing very seriously. But they’re forgetting one of the most important tasks of parenting, and it’s having long-term negative effects.
Many parents today are losing sight of the task of raising children who are competent and effective adults. In trying to protect their children from everything, they are preventing them from learning the skills they need to become competent adults; skills such as problem solving, tolerating distress, and persevering in the face of adversity. When parents do all of the problem-solving for their children and make problems magically go away, and they inadvertantly send their children the messages that 1) They should never experience negative emotions, 2) Life should be fair and they shouldn’t have to deal with unpleasant situations, and 3) They can’t tolerate distress or deal with unpleasant situations. After all, if they could, why would their parents have to handle all of their problems for them?
When children have the opportunity to deal with mildly distressing situations, especially within a safe environment, they learn that they can handle distress and be okay. They build their own defenses against negative emotions, much like the immune system builds defenses against pathogens; a safe level of exposure builds immunity. This process, known as “emotional inoculation,” builds psychological immunity.
Well-meaning parents are robbing their children of the opportunity to learn and practice skills for handling unpleasant situations at a time in their lives when it is safest for them to do so. Their children are growing into adults who don’t know how to handle their own problems and don’t think they should have to, who believe life should be easy and they should always be happy, and who wonder what’s wrong with them that their lives are not easy and they are not always happy. Their unreasonable expectations of the world are making them anxious. They are shocked when faced with real-life challenges, and struggle to learn skills that they should have learned as children so that they can become effective adults.
So what’s a parent to do? Remember that people (yes, even children) learn best from their own experiences. Your job as a protector is still important; continue to protect your children from truly dangerous situations and situations that have the potential for long-term negative consequences, but don’t protect them from every minor road-block. Empathize with your child if they are upset, but don’t try to fix the problem for them or tell them not to have those feelings. Work with your child to help them generate solutions for dealing with problems on their own when feasible. Provide guidance around issues that are important to you, but give your child room to develop his or her own opinions. And sometimes, allow your children to make choices that you don’t necessarily agree with (as long as they’re not in any real danger from doing so), so that they can learn from their own experiences.
For more tips on helping your child deal with failure, check out this parenting.com article.
For more on information about research on the impact of helicopter parenting, check out this Psychology Today article.