, Salem, MA

August 16, 2013

10 ways to avoid being a helicopter parent

Dr. Kate's Parent Rap
Dr. Kate Roberts

---- — 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.

10 tips for helicopter parents

Parents need to remember that it’s their responsibility to teach their child the skills necessary to become an independent adult. Growing from child to independent adult is a developmental process, and it’s a parent’s role to support this process throughout a child’s life.

It’s never too late to foster independence. Pulling back and allowing a child to make developmentally appropriate decisions, problem-solve and even make mistakes are important milestones. Pull back and allow things to unfold, such as not interfering with sibling and friend disputes; that’s how children learn to negotiate, share and compromise.

Allow a child to be disappointed. For example, if a child isn’t fully engaged in a sport, he cannot expect to start at the games, or perhaps even play or make the team. And, yes, it’s difficult to watch a child who doesn’t make the team or doesn’t get played, but it’s also an opportunity for a child to learn what’s important and decide how much effort he wants to expend on his interests. Attempting to influence a coach’s decisions when a child isn’t motivated to improve does not help a child; it only reinforces the belief that “I don’t have to practice; my mom will take care of it.”

Give reminders once. When children are a certain age, approximately 7 and older, parents can begin to remind them only once regarding rote routines. If the child ignores the reminder, then he has to suffer the consequences of not having his art smock or sneakers on gym day.

Accept that it’s not yours to fix. Parents cannot fix a child’s daily life struggles. Instead, parents can coach him on the best way to handle a difficult situation and allow him to make the final decision.

Allow him to do. Parents should try not to do for their child what he can do for himself, including things like homework, chores or making phone calls for play dates.

Respect for adults. Parents should teach their child to respect adults, even if parents don’t agree with teachers’ or coaches’ decisions. Bad-mouthing an adult sets a child up for negativity with teachers and coaches.

Hold him accountable. Let a child suffer the consequences of his actions. Parents shouldn’t bail him out just because he is suffering as a result of a bad decision or an impulsive behavior.

Pick your battles and allow mistakes. If given developmentally appropriate choices, children will invariably make mistakes that they can grow and learn from. When this occurs, parents have an opportunity to provide guidance, comfort and support, as opposed to being viewed as the controller before the mistake.

Learn to sit back. It’s hard for parents to sit back and watch, but how else can a child learn? Parents need to remember that parts of life are painful, and the sooner a child learns how to adapt, the more resilient he’ll be when confronted with daily life challenges.


Dr. Kate Roberts is a psychologist and parent coach on the North Shore. Questions can be directed to, or