Recently, I was asked by several parents about “helicopter parenting.” Helicopter parenting is a term used to describe an overprotective parent. It’s been used since the 1990s; however, in 2011, the term was added to the dictionary, legitimizing it. Helicopter parents are parents who are well-intended, who inadvertently undermine their children’s development by stepping in and taking charge at the slightest sign of discomfort or challenge.
It’s not easy separating appropriate parenting from helicopter parenting, and certainly, all responsible parents need to be protective. One benchmark that distinguishes appropriate parenting from helicopter parenting is whether safety is a factor. Of course, when behaviors are unsafe, all parents need to be “hands-on.” On a daily basis, a child’s challenges are less about risk of imminent danger and more about handling disappointment and other negative emotions. Helicopter parents often intervene when life is perceived as being a little too uncomfortable for the child. Examples include asking the school to change a teacher or a child’s grade or intervening when a child is excluded from a peer’s social event. These are all uncomfortable life realities that a child needs to learn to adapt to. A parent’s energy is much better spent helping the child through these disappointments, rather than focusing on fixing or changing them.
When parents are overly involved in their child’s life, they interfere with the child’s developmental process, specifically the development of self-esteem. Children need parents to guide them by asking them to consider possible scenarios without making the actual decisions. A child of overly protective parents is at risk for lacking life skills, such as knowing what to do or how to cope when unexpected life events occur. When children make decisions and work through disappointments, they gain confidence, self-reliance and competence. Children, as they grow into puberty and beyond, need to have an internal sense that they can take care of themselves and be OK beyond their parents.