Recent research published in the journal Developmental Psychology has fuelled the argument that helicopter parenting – metaphorically hovering above your child, over-protecting them and exerting excessive control over their life – is damaging children’s wellbeing.
The findings come from a study of 422 children when aged two, five and 10. By the age of five, children with more controlling helicopter parents struggled to regulate their own emotions and impulses. At 10, these children were more likely to have poor social skills, lower academic performance and a more negative attitude to school.
The term ‘helicopter parenting’ was coined in 1969 by psychotherapist Dr. Haim Ginott, in his bestselling book, Between Parent and Teenager. Though this term can often be used tongue-in-cheek by the media, perhaps to suggest that little Johnny doesn’t need you to micro-manage his playdates aged 13, the recent study shows there is lasting damage from imposing too much control on your children.
At Christine Tizzard Psychology, we are always keen to emphasise that children need freedom as they grow: freedom to make mistakes, or tumble over and dust themselves off. Though parents can be over-protective out of love, wrapping a child in cotton wool or over-indulging them is not something any psychologist would advise. Of course, children need boundaries and routine, but they thrive by making decisions, taking responsibility and gaining independence as they get older.
Helicopter parents might argue that their attitude is far better than letting children run riot, and better than the other extreme of imposing strict Victorian values where children are treated coldly. Yet these parents probably don’t recall the benefits of their own childhood, when they could climb trees, make mess and maybe even fail an exam, all of which they have learned from.
How to Avoid Being a Helicopter Parent
- If your child has been upset by a friend or classmate, don’t go in all guns blazing and demand to meet the friend’s parents or your child’s teacher. Children fall out with each other all the time, and slights can be quickly forgotten in a day or two. Think how often you fell out with friends at their age! You should intervene if a real rift is developing, or you see signs of long-term bullying, but let smaller incidents lie. It’s part of growing up.
- Accept that your child’s homework is there to test them and recall what they have learned during the day; it is not a collaborative project between parents and children. Check they are completing their homework but resist the urge to tweak it (or pass off your own work as theirs). If they are really floundering over the task – for example, they cannot grasp fractions – gently explain where they are going wrong, then let them try again by themselves.
- Don’t volunteer to be a parent helper at every school trip. Parents should take it in turns to help out: these trips are not an excuse to keep an eye on your child, who will just want to be with their friends.
- Don’t pay your child for achieving certain grades or doing chores. They shouldn’t need a rewards system to try hard or be helpful. Besides, does anyone pay you for completing a work assessment or washing the car?
- Keep after-school and weekend activities to a reasonable level and tailored to the child’s interests, not your own agenda. Resist the urge to hover poolside or become a Brownie leader; instead, catch up with a friend, read a book or get through your own ‘to do’ list.
- In competitive activities like school sports day or a poetry competition, don’t demand prizes for all. Coming fourth means there is no shiny medal or certificate, but it is part of life. Yes, there may be tears and tantrums, but there is always next time.
If you struggle to avoid being a helicopter parent, and you feel these instincts are deep-seated, you may want to try Solution-Focused Therapy. This is a short-term intervention, taking just three to five sessions on average, to develop goals and make changes in your life. It can be delivered as family therapy or one-on-one.
Written by guest contributor Vikram Das for Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).