But it is the term 'helicopter parenting' that has received the most attention. First coined way back in 1990 in a series of parenting books, it refers to "overly involved and protective parents who constantly communicate with their children, intervene in their children's affairs, make decisions for their children, personally invest in their children's goals, and remove obstacles their children encounter" according to those who have studied the phenomenon. Research has found that these parents are likely to be well-educated, dual-income Baby Boomers (although they are now being seen across all social classes) who have a range of resources at their disposal (e.g., money, time and skills) with which to overindulge their children.
Experts believe that helicopter parents behave this way because "they confuse love, protection, and caring" and try to prevent their child from failing in any aspect of their life. As a result, 'normal' parental concern is taken to a dysfunctional level. In a school setting, examples of this behaviour include calling teachers to demand a better grade for their teen, making excuses and accepting responsibility for bad behaviour and doing their child's homework for them. Here are some classic examples of helicopter parenting that I have either been told about or actually seen in the school setting:
- a parent of a 15-year-old girl calling the school to complain about her daughter getting into trouble after not handing in an assignment on time, telling the teacher that it wasn't her daughter's fault. She (the mother) had had a headache the night before the assignment was due and that had put undue stress on the whole family. She demanded that the teacher apologise to her daughter and that she was given an extension
- a number of years ago, the dance festival 'Big Day Out' used to be held on a weekday in Adelaide. Many of the schools I visit there would tell of their great frustration when large numbers of their students (particularly those in Year 11 and 12) would be absent on the day and then would turn up with notes from their parents claiming that they were sick! One school had almost 25% of their Year 12 group not show up one year ...
- a father of a 16-year-old boy contacted me by email and asked for my assistance with his son's major research project. He sent me through a series of questions that he wanted me to answer and when I wrote back and asked if he could get his son to actually send the email and touch base with me (as I thought that was a key part of the actual project), he replied in the following way (and this is a quote!) - "He is very busy at the moment and very stressed. He doesn't have the time to contact the key informants so his mother and I have shared the load a little .."
- a girls' school recently had their swimming carnival and had over one-third of their Year 10s not attend, with parents calling the school on the day to say their daughters were unwell
A teacher had gone to the local shopping centre at recess and happened to spot one of her students sitting in a coffee shop with a couple of other young people she did not know. She was not in school uniform. It so happened that she had noted this girl absent earlier in the day and knew that the school had not been informed that she would not be attending. She called the school and it was confirmed that the girl's parents had not informed the school of her absence. A phone call was then made and the mother answered the phone. She was then told that her daughter had been seen at the shopping centre and asked was she aware of it. What happened next was truly bizarre. Instead of saying 'yes', she knew and she had given permission for her daughter to have the day off (which would have been so easy to do), she told the Year 10 Co-ordinater that the girl was sick and upstairs in bed! The teacher assured her that she wasn't and the mother then claimed that she was in her daughter's room and was looking straight at her! What was so amazing was that by this time the teacher at the shopping centre had approached the student and was talking to the girl almost at exactly the same time as the mother claimed she was in bed ... The girl was truanting and, instead of supporting and thanking the school for letting her know, she lied to try to ensure that her daughter did not get into trouble ...
In the US there is currently a great deal of research being conducted on the impact of such parenting practices, particularly around their transition into adulthood (i.e., going to college or starting in the workforce). In their 2014 paper, Odenweller and colleagues wrote the following:
"What we do know is that children are being overindulged; and it does not seem to be a result of social economic classes but rather too much, over-nurturing, and soft structure. These three things have lead to a delay in the child’s transition into adulthood. It appears that children who are overindulged either have a prolonged time in the transition to adulthood period or never actually leave the emerging adult stage."
Even though this comes from a 'good place' - this is not healthy parenting. All any parent wants is for their child to he 'happy, healthy and successful' - that can't happen if they never become fully-functioning adults. I get why parents do this - everyone wants their child to have so much more than they did when they were young. They also want to keep their kids safe, no-one wants to see their child suffer in any way. Conflicts with teachers, not doing well at school, being bullied by their peers - I can't imagine what it must be like for a parent to have the person they love most in the world experience these problems and, of course, you need to do what you can to protect them. But, as already stated, don't confuse 'love, protection and caring' with dysfunctional 'overparenting'!
Little work, if any, has been conducted on what effect this behaviour has on young people during their early teens. When it comes to its impact on alcohol and other drug use, I have not been able to find any research on the area apart from a study that links helicopter parenting to children's use of recreational painkillers and anxiety and depression medications. As I have said many times before, the available evidence suggests that 'authoritative parenting ' (i.e., rules, consequences, bound in 'unconditional love') is most probably the best way to go and helps prevent, or at the very least, delay early drinking and illicit drug use.
So are you a 'helicopter parent'? There's a great little online quiz (just 10 quick questions) developed by the BBC that provides an insight to what type of parent you are. Once completed, it tells you where you sit on the 'parenting continuum'. The article also contains some really wonderful messages for parents who are struggling to get the balance right between loving and caring about your child and overparenting (e.g., it's okay for your kid to be bored, arguing and having a fight about something can be healthy and taking risks is normal and necessary). I have included the list below ...
- the fun of boredom. Despite what your child may think, boredom is a gift! In these days of constant stimulation the brain can get overloaded
- the power of sorry. Teach your child to be responsible for their own behaviour. Urge them to identifying how they can right the wrong
- conflict resolution. Humans are wonderful in their diversity of values and opinions and, as a consequence, we all argue and it can be healthy
- step back if you want them to step up. In this often hectic world of balancing work and parenting, it can be quicker to do it yourself. Don't!
- educate yourself. A vital role of a parent is to prepare your child to live independently in the 21st century. Learn about opportunities and issues
- embrace difficulty. Life is challenging so foster resilience in your child by not shielding them from problems or negative emotions
- be risk takers. Life is risky. Let your child experience (controlled) risk so that they become risk aware and self sufficient
- hug it out. Like other close bonds, the parent-child relationship is built on neurochemicals. So play, laugh, hug and talk to keep your bond strong.
As I always say, parents an only do the best they can do at the time. It is important to remember, however, that for your child to become a resilient adult who is able to cope with the world, they are going to have to fail, suffer hardships and experience setbacks. That is how they learn. That said, beating yourself up when you make mistakes helps no-one, least of all your child. As the BBC article says so eloquently:
"You don’t have to be the perfect parent, whatever that is, just a good enough one. We are all human and, however many children we may have, we are all still learning what is the best way to parent each child, so be kind to yourself!"
Machin, A. (2017). Take the test: Am I a helicopter parent? (http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zs976yc#z87s3k7) accessed 18 March, 2017.
Odenweller, K.G., Booth-Butterfield, M. & Weber, K. (2014). Investigating helicopter parenting, family environments, and relational outcomes for millenials. Communication Studies 65, 407-425.