Could Your ‘Helicopter Parenting’ Actually Be Detrimental to Your Child’s Development?

How to know if this parenting style is going too far
parenting, child care, helicopter parenting

It’s a natural reaction. As a parent, you want to do everything you can to keep your children safe and free of harm. But can an overbearing parenting style spell problems for your child later on?

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According to a 2018 study, it’s possible.

The study looked at 422 children and followed them over a period of eight years — at ages 2, 5 and 10.

Researchers found that over-controlling parenting of a child at age 2 was associated with poorer emotional and behavioral regulation at age 5. Likewise, the children who had better emotional regulation at age 5 were less likely to have emotional or social problems at age 10, and were also more likely to fare better in school.

Pediatric psychologist Vanessa K. Jensen, PsyD, ABPP, didn‘t take part in the research, but says parents should allow their children to make mistakes, within reason.

What is helicopter parenting?

The term “helicopter parenting” refers to a type of parent who‘s always hovering over their child’s every move. If you find yourself staying alert over your child’s every action and choice and are always nearby, paying close attention to every activity and interaction, you may be helicopter parenting.

While always keeping an eye on your kids may seem like a good thing, research and advice from doctors have indicated that it may stunt development if taken too far.

Some parents hover more than others, but Dr. Jensen also cautions about being quick to label parents who are trying to respond to their child’s needs.

“Oftentimes, you have a parent who is simply responding to their specific child’s behavior and needs,” she notes. “It is important to be somewhat protective at times, and to be cautious, especially in our current culture.”

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Helicopter parenting may come from a genuine place of wanting to help provide support for kids as they grow up — but the key is having a balance.

Are you a helicopter parent? Signs to look out for

It’s understandable to want to pay close attention to your kids. And how attentive you are will depend on your specific style and the needs of each child. Indeed, with the rise of the internet and social media, there can be benefits to applying boundaries like child locks and social media barriers.

“Even 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have brought social media up as something that is nearly as important as I do now,” says Dr. Jensen. “In our world, kids can access so much information online, so I really believe parents need to be relatively invasive early on. A lot of teaching opportunities can be used in those early years to teach kids what’s appropriate and not appropriate.”

So, while it’s important to pay attention to what your kids are doing and watching, there are some general warning signs that your hovering is going too far.

You may be crossing the line into harmful helicopter parenting if:

  • Your child is reluctant to tell you things or introduce you to their friends.
  • Your child isn’t able to face certain age-appropriate obstacles on their own.
  • Your child is beginning to expect hard tasks to be done for them.
  • Your child is unable to handle themselves in challenging situations.
  • Your child is becoming antisocial and uncomfortable with new people.

Impact of helicopter parenting on children’s development

While it may not seem like it at first, being too protective of your kids can have an impact on their development and growth. There are certain things your child will miss out on if your parenting becomes too overbearing, and some important developmental milestones can be missed if your parenting style doesn’t give them space to grow.

Learning from mistakes

When we think of a child’s development, we often think of them succeeding in various challenges throughout life. But it’s also important to allow them to make mistakes and develop problem-solving skills through trial and error.

“It is important to let your child make mistakes,” Dr. Jensen says. “If you are the parent constantly bringing little Juan or little Jennifer back in as soon as they’re going a bit too far from the nest, like a momma chick — there isn’t the chance to make the little mistakes they can learn from.”

In other words, if a parent is constantly fixing things for their kids, they won’t get a chance to fail or learn through trying. Making mistakes is a natural part of growth and, while it can be scary at first, children have much to learn from them.

“We all know that we learn from mistakes,” says Dr. Jensen, and she encourages you to let your child do so as well.

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Self-advocacy skills

Just like problem-solving skills, it’s also important for kids to learn how to stand up for themselves in tough situations. While many parents naturally feel the need to fix problems for their young ones, there comes a time when a child learns how to do this for themselves.

It’s common for helicopter parents to jump at the chance to get involved with their kids’ conflicts. If your child is being bullied at school, your desire to come to their rescue is perfectly understandable. While it’s important to intervene when necessary to ensure your child’s well-being, it’s also important to use real-life situations as teaching moments for kids to deal with some things themselves.  

How to let go of helicopter parenting

If you’ve identified some of these traits in your parenting style, there are steps you can take toward slowly letting go. It can be a difficult transition, but building independence in your child is a valuable part of their development.

According to Dr. Jensen, it’s important to still be watchful of your kids, though. But she recommends being more cautious early in your child’s life and then slowly lessening your monitoring.

Here are steps you can take to let go of your helicopter tendencies:

  1. Be cautious early. If you’re trying to hover less as a parent, that doesn’t mean letting go all at once. Dr. Jensen’s recommendation is to pay closest attention to your kids’ activities and monitor their behavior most during their youngest years as you teach them important skills. Then, as they grow, your constant attention can lighten and you can slowly let go of the need to continually monitor them. This way, your children can learn what your expectations are in terms of socializing, social media and doing things on their own.

    “What you don’t want to do is what I see parents do a lot, where they don’t over scrutinize a whole lot early on and then as kids get to be teenagers, they all of a sudden crack down,” says Dr. Jensen. “And the kids’ response is then, ‘You didn’t do this before, why are you doing it now?’”
  2. Monitor together. When TVs, computers and social media are introduced, you’ll want to pay attention to your child’s digital habits and what they’re looking up and watching. Use this as a moment to learn together. Kids will be surrounded by different forms of media, and it’s important for you to teach them what digital activities they should engage in and what content isn’t appropriate for them. This is more beneficial than telling your child what they were doing wrong after the fact.

    “Use those as educational opportunities, and monitor content together,” Dr. Jensen advises.
  3. Open communication. Make an effort to get to know who your kids are hanging out with, but not in an overbearing way. Make sure there’s open communication and mutual understanding with your child and know who they’re spending their time with. Dr. Jensen recommends finding out who your kids socialize with, but not in a way that makes them feel like you’re invading their privacy.

    “My biggest recommendation is basic communication. And starting early by asking to get to know who their friends are,” Dr. Jensen says. Simply being curious about their peers will give you insight into who they’re spending time with. Dr. Jensen recommends asking questions like “Who do you find this year in your class that you’d like to hang out with? Who do you have lunch with? Are there kids that you find that are more interesting this year?”
  4. Try different discipline styles. Not all children have the same learning style or will respond to the same forms of discipline. Different children require different parenting styles, even siblings within the same family, Dr. Jensen notes.

    “If a child is more outgoing — more impulsive or more likely to get in trouble — then you may need to be a parent who puts more limits on them,” she says. “If your child is more cautious and stays closer to you, you might be the opposite — you might want to encourage them to take more risks.”

Learn as you go

As your kids grow and learn from their mistakes, so will you. If you’re worried about a new parenting style you’re trying, ask for help if you need it. It can be beneficial to reach out to other parents for advice, but not in a judgmental way, especially for a first-time parent. Talking to the parents of a child’s peers about what they allow at certain ages can be helpful for parents who are concerned about being too protective or too lax in their parenting style.

Ultimately, you’ll find that every parent has different styles of discipline and parenting when it comes to their kids. Everyone wants to protect their kids and prepare them for the real world, but part of that is easing them out of the nest in small ways. By using open communication and gentle monitoring, it’s possible to find a healthy balance that doesn’t harm your child’s development and improves your relationship with them.

“There’s got to be a point where you begin to trust them,” says Dr. Jensen. “If you have a sense that your child is trustworthy, give them space.”

Complete results of the 2018 study can be found in Developmental Psychology.

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