The term “helicopter parent” may have been recently coined, but it’s certainly not a new phenomenon. The term is applied to parents who “hover over” their children, like a helicopter, paying extremely close attention to their experiences and problems, both in everyday life and academic settings.
Parents may feel as if they’re looking out for their children’s welfare and helping their children excel, but there’s a downside to being overly involved and concerned. Studies are finding significantly higher levels of anxiety and depression in college students and young adults with helicopter parents.
Why might that be? For one, helicopter parents may not allow their children to experience adversity and establish a sense of their own competence at managing things in the world around them. They can also convey a sense that perfection is what is required and demanded.
“Hovering parents can lead to anxious kids because it doesn’t allow children to learn resilience. Parents need to give kids the opportunity to fail a bit, to learn from their mistakes and to grow from them. This helps build resiliency and the ability to deal with things in a healthy way,” says Ruth Milsten, MSW, LCSW-C, a mental health clinician and licensed social worker with AAMG Mental Health Specialists.
Studies on the mental health of our youth confirm the harm done by expecting little when it comes to independence, yet much when it comes to achievements in school, sports or other extracurricular activities.
Kids who are used to having their parents make every decision for them may face quite a shock when they enter a stage of life where more independence is expected, such as college or work. Inevitable small setbacks can feel like big failures, and a lack of feelings of self-sufficiency can lead to anxiety and depression.
One of the primary developmental tasks of adolescence is to create a growing sense of autonomy. Healthy functioning depends on learning to navigate between demands that are too extreme—creating too much anxiety—and a realistic sense of what is actually required in the world for success. Part of normal development has to involve processes of trial and error.
What can parents do to help?
- Get comfortable with failure. The feeling of disappointment can be actually beneficial and children need to know you accept them as imperfect. Talk openly about dealing with setbacks or failures to help your child develop coping skills and emotional resilience.
- Be mindful of praise. We all know lack of approval can be devastating to children. At the same time, confidence grows from overcoming challenges, not being told how great you are all the time. Strike a balance, and keep in mind that sometimes “good” truly ought to be good enough.
- Remember, you’re the role model. It’s important to handle your own disappointments with grace—your kids are watching you. Help them see that adults make mistakes and experience setbacks. Own your decisions, and let them take ownership of theirs.
It can be difficult for parents to experience the world as complicated and demanding and not be highly anxious about their children going out into it. Parents should support their children when they fail, but they shouldn’t prevent their child from ever experiencing failure.
It’s the ability to go out into the world, experience some degree of failure, and pick oneself up to try again that gives an individual a healthy sense of the resources they have inside themselves to successfully navigate a path through life—a path that is truly theirs, not someone else’s.