The recently coined term “helicopter parents” refers to parents who hover close to their children with the impression that this will keep them safe or ensure their success. We more formally call these parents “overprotective,” “overintrusive,” or “facilitators” for their kids. The new term may make this behavior seem more normal or even more amusing than it really is.
When you see helicopter parents in your practice, it's hard to know exactly what your role should be. How intrusive should you be to try to change their ways? Is helicopter parenting just a trendy societal or cultural phenomenon? Or do you really have enough information that it is a problem to justify your offering advice?
Even though answers to those questions may still be “up in the air,” overall such overprotection can have significant side effects and should be “on our radar”!
There are some pretty obvious reasons for the increase in helicopter parenting. One is cell phones. Everybody has cell phones, even some 6-year-old children. All the calling and texting back and forth makes it too easy to know every move the child makes. These days, if the children are not out of the house with their cell phones, they likely are at home playing video games or in a sport to which they were driven by the parent.
And these activity choices are part of a vicious cycle being selected – if not to promote entry to Harvard then to keep kids busy. Once one family puts their kids in planned activities, there are fewer peers available to play with after school, so other parents do the same. Smaller family sizes also can encourage helicopter parenting. If parents have five children, there is no time for hovering! Families with fewer children also may have more psychologically invested in each child.
I think that it is no accident that helicopter parenting has emerged at the same time most women are in the workplace full time. When home, working mothers, full of guilt, “up their efforts” to make sure they are being good parents.
Other reasons for a heightened level of hovering is parents' perception that they need to keep their kids safe in what feels like a threatening world. Families also are responding to increased competitiveness for college entry and jobs by doing all they can to position their children to achieve these goals. Of course, parents also want to show their love and concern. In some cases, high levels of protectiveness are appropriate: The child may attend a school where kids are carrying knives, or Dad is coming home drunk and the child needs to be protected. Such circumstances are the exception, though. More common pathology is that a parent is overanxious in general or even has an anxiety disorder.
While overprotectiveness may be understandable, it has significant developmental consequences. When parents dictate most of the children's activities, this can preclude the children from discovering, pursuing, and “owning” their interests. Overall, it can lessen the children's self-esteem because they have fewer opportunities to achieve things they consider to be all their own. Also, when a parent participates in the child's activities, they, as adults, will likely be more competent than the child. That can make a child feel less competent, whereas a kid doing things with peers has a decent chance of being the best. Helicopter parents also typically are aiming to avoid all kinds of risk for their precious child. The protected child may be physically safe, but can become risk aversive and miss the chance to learn how to appropriately assess real dangers. If parents “helicopter” because they are always afraid something bad is going to happen – like a pedophile is going to jump out of the bushes or the child is going to be abducted – they also transmit these fears to the child.
Children who are too restricted may even have health effects from sitting at home, eating too much, and not getting enough exercise.
But what can you do when you think problems may be developing from a helicopter parent? Parents may not perceive any problem at all. In this case, motivational interviewing can help. This technique can be used to move many different types of behavior and can fit into a primary care visit.
A motivational interview is a dialogue between the clinician and patient with specific steps. First, find out if the parent or child perceives any problem at all. You might say, “Wow, you certainly have your kid in all kinds of activities and are working hard to provide all these opportunities. Is your level of involvement a problem for you or your child in any way?” Watching the child's face when you ask this can be very revealing, and can also be used as a point of reflection for the interview.