Samantha Brueckner

Helicopter Parents

Helicopter Parents

I remember at my son's 4th birthday party, we played Pass the Parcel - when he didn’t win the prize, he ran and dramatically threw himself on the ground wailing and flailing. He wasn't the only disappointed child, I panicked and wondered if I should have wrapped enough presents for every child to win something before another mother commented that it was a good life lesson for the children to learn. 

Of course, as parents we want our children to be happy, but often that desire brings us into a territory where we try to avoid any kind of disappointment or sadness for our children. This can be a key motivation of ‘helicopter parents’. There are times when it is a difficult balance to strike, wanting to be involved with your children, without smothering them. 

So how do you know if you are a ‘helicopter parent’?

The term ‘"helicopter parent’" was first used in Dr. Haim Ginott's 1969 book Between Parent & Teenager, where teens said their parents would hover over them like a helicopter. 

One of the most difficult things about parenting can be shifting the focus from our children to ourselves, having to analyse what the driving force might be behind our parenting style. Are you trying to live up to other people's expectations or are your own fears and anxieties having an impact? Or are you living vicariously through the achievements of your children?

Recent studies from Texas State University and the University of Nebraska analysed what were the key influences behind ‘helicopter parents’. The studies found that a parent’s tendency towards perfectionism was the root cause in many cases, often trying to get their children to achieve perfect results. 

A close cousin of perfectionism is. in all of this is anxiety, where parents can ruminate on all of the ‘what if's?' that could go wrong. So a lot of their parenting decisions were geared towards avoiding risk. Often, even subconsciously, are we trying to stop our children making the same mistakes that we did?  

It's important to stand back and appreciate your value, totally independent of your children, and your children need to recognise their value, totally independent of you. 

Remember failure, and experiencing sadness is necessary for the healthy development of our children.  Too often, we as parents, try to buffer this feeling by not letting our children lose for fear of what it may do to them.

Over parenting can be something that starts when our children are very small, when we apply our adult expectations on how they ‘should’, for example, play or colour, or sing. 

When you jump in, you're sending a message that says - I don’t think you are capable of doing this on your own. Over time this can have a huge negative impact on a child's self esteem. 

When it comes to your child's battles, don't fight them. Just be their support system. Be there to listen and help them manage their emotions while gently guiding them in ways that they can work out the solution themselves. 

Failure and making mistakes is also a really important part of learning and growing throughout our entire lives. Focus on being an encourager, a fear of failure is something that will hold your child back much more than failing in the first place. 

My boys have so many bumps and bruises I can't account for what jump or fall caused them. Sometimes it's like they are drawn towards danger, I find myself holding my breath, knowing that this is part of the learning curve. Even when babies start to learn to walk, falling down is what teaches them to balance. Risk is an inherent part of life and our children's development. 

Fostering a healthy relationship with winning and losing is also important, things like team sports or for younger children games that have no skill, just luck, such as, Snakes and Ladders can help to create a good loser. 

The fascinating thing is we can even have different attitudes when it comes to different children.  Several studies have shown that our risk aversion has a gendered lens. Studies have shown parents are much more likely to caution girls in a playground situation while they assist and encourage boys.  Further research has shown parents are 4 times more likely to tell their little girls to be careful compared to boys when they are playing. The message we are sending is boys face your fears, go for it, girls take less risk.  But misadventure is all about trying and trying again. Mistakes can be the route to self mastery. 

It's understandable after a year of heightened (arguably unnecessary) anxiety during the pandemic that your tendency to be overprotective may increase. But we need to think about it in a different way, how resilient and adaptable our children have shown themselves to be. You have also modelled resilience and should be proud of that.

Life is full of hard knocks, failures and disappointments and these are things that build fortitude, you might think you are protecting your child trying to avoid these things but you might end up, in the long term, making your child less equipped to deal with the real world. 

Children are cosseted in ways that we were not as children, more and more psychotherapists talk about how young adults are unable to cope with the strains of everyday life. Ultimately you should have a commitment to a healthy balance of allowing obstacles that create moments of learning and growth. And when we are thinking of stepping in - ask is it for you or your child and what will it achieve, in the end? 

This is not about saying do not be there for your children, it's about knowing the difference between helping with and doing for, knowing the difference between failing and being a failure and allowing some heartache in the short term for learning, growth and long term gain. 


Photo credit :
Kelly Sikkema
August de Richelieu
Tatiana Syrikova
Annie Spratt
From Pexels

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