The High Cost of Helicopter Parenting & How to Stop It

Updated: Jun 25


The Atlantic published a chilling cover story last month about the rise of anxiety and depression in children. Between 2007 and 2017, suicides among 10- to 24-year-olds jumped 56 percent, it read. And suicides by children ages 5 to 11 have nearly doubled in recent years.

Did you catch that? Children between 5 and 11. Bloody hell.


And what is the cause of all this mental turbulence? Then answer might surprise you. Instead of social media or screen-time use or climate change or politics being responsible for children's anxiety disorders, the primary contributor named in the article is, well, us. (Yeah, I know, I wanted to blame Trump, too.)


“'There really isn’t evidence to demonstrate that parents cause children’s anxiety disorders in the vast majority of cases,'” psychologist Eli Lebowitz told the magazine. "But—and this is a big but—there is research establishing a correlation between children’s anxiety and parents’ behavior."


Specifically, the kids most fearful of life, more leery of adulthood, more likely to end up in therapy are the ones whose parents have a strong instinct to "accommodate" their children and to focus intensely on their children's wellbeing — a phenomenon known, of course, as "helicopter parenting."

Generally speaking, helicoptering refers to the "hovering" we parents do when we don't trust our children to be able to "handle" their own circumstances on their own, or do the "right" or "good" thing without our guidance. And it's usually done in the name of love. You can't blame us for wanting to protect our littles from harm, from shame, from fear, from discomfort, from loss, from failure.

The very bitter rub is that, in the long run, the efforts we make to prevent our kids from hard things hurt them more than the hard things we’re trying to protect them from.

  • When I second-guess my 4-year-old's outfit.

  • When I order for my 6-year-old in a restaurant.

  • When I advise my 7-year-old on how to spend his birthday money.

  • When I don't let my 9-year-old cook lest he cut or burn himself.

  • When I micromanage my 11-year-old's science project.

  • When I reach out to my 13-year-old's teacher to dispute a bad grade.

  • When I do my 15-year-old's laundry.

  • When I commit a federal crime to get my 17-year-old into an elite university.

It’s all helicoptering.

To be sure, most of us born after, say, 1940 have a helicopter somewhere inside us. Like racial prejudice, over-parenting is something most of us oppose, but all of us participate in — knowingly or not — at least on occasion. That said, not all helicopters are created equally. Some of us swoop in when we shouldn't, while others are never gone for long enough to have to swoop; we're always hovering.

The very bitter rub is that, in the long run, the efforts we make to prevent our kids from hard things hurt them more than the hard things we’re trying to protect them from.

It's no surprise that helicoptering correlates so strongly with childhood anxiety. As my ParentShift co-author Linda Hatfield put it to me: “The mere fact that you are helicoptering tells you that you have a lot of anxiety.” In other words, not only are we causing anxiety; we're role modeling it, too.

So how do we stop the cycle?

As someone who suffers from anxiety myself, I know as well as anyone that you can't just shut off the spigot. Tamping down the cortisol in our bodies while also trying to "do the right thing" with our kids can be a big ask. Luckily, there are practical ways to ground our helicopters without rewiring our brains.

1. Learn to spot the difference between a parent-owned challenge and child-owned challenge.

I cannot overstate the importance of this, guys. Parent-owned challenges are those in which you must intervene, or even take the lead, because they have a real-world impact on you or because they involve limits that you have set for your child. Child-owned challenges are those that are, frankly, none of your freaking business. They are age-appropriate problems that don't directly effect you and don't require you to step in.


  • Your 3-year-old throws a tantrum in the middle of the store: Parent-owned challenge. (Because the child's tantrum is fine with him; it's you who would like it to end.)

  • Your 5-year-old gets in an argument with her best friend: Child-owned challenge. (Because she's your child's friend, not yours.)

  • Your 8-year-old won't do his chores: Parent-owned challenge. (Because the child is fine not doing chores; it's you who wants the chores done.)

  • Your 9-year-old is afraid of the dark: Child-owned challenge. (Because its your child's fear, not yours.)

  • Your 10-year-old is spending too much time on his phone: Parent-owned challenge. (Because he would spend all day on his phone if he could; it's you who understands how unhealthy that would be.)

  • Your 11-year-old forgets his homework: Child-owned challenge.

  • Your 13-year-old complains of boredom: Child-owned challenge.

  • Your 15-year-old doesn't make goalie on the soccer team: Child-owned challenge


You get the idea.


Parent-owned challenge: A problem that has a real-world impact on the parent. (This includes any challenge involving limits that you have set — whether it's screen-time rules, chore systems or holding your child's hand when crossing the street.)
 
Child-owned challenge: An age-appropriate problem that the child can manage on his own and that has no tangible effect on the parent. 

Every time we step in on a child-owned challenge, we take power from our kids — power that allows them to feel capable of handling their own lives, and will be increasingly important as they age.


So whenever a challenge erupts, ask yourself: Is this a "me" problem or a "them" problem. If it's the latter, bite your tongue. If you must say something, say something empathetic. "Oh, I bet that did hurt your feelings" or "You seem worried that you'll get a bad grade" or "Boredom can be so frustrating!" or just, "I'm so sorry, kiddo."


2. Let natural consequences be your co-pilot.


When you allow your child to handle her own child-owned challenges, a really magical things happens. She learns important life lessons through natural consequences — that is, consequences that result naturally from an action or behavior. Natural consequences are so much more effective than parent-imposed consequences it's not even funny.


Let's take a few examples:


  • Your child leaves her coat at home; the natural consequences is that she’s cold.

  • Your child says something rotten to her friend; the natural consequence is that her friend won't want to play with her.

  • Your child doesn't do her laundry; the natural consequence is that she runs out of clean clothes and has to wear dirty ones to school.

Yes, you can nag and yell and scold and punish; but this will just cause a rift in your relationship. So stay silent and let natural consequences do the work for you!


Natural consequences: Consequences that naturally result from an action or behavior, with no parental intervention. Natural consequences are always the best way too teach unless the consequence is:

1) unsafe, 
2) unhealthy, 
3) too long range for the child to make the connection between action and effect, or 
4) violates someone else’s personal boundaries. 

For example: A natural consequence of walking out in front of traffic is that your child will be hit by a car (unsafe). If she eats only junk food, she will get sick (unhealthy). If she doesn’t brush her teeth, she’ll get cavities (too long range). If she throws a ball in the house, it might break your vase (violates your boundary). Is the answer no? Let it go.


Spoiler alert: This can be hard. Let's take the laundry scenario. If your kid doesn't care about wearing clean clothes, having to wear dirty clothes won't bring about change, right? Still, though, unless your kid's clothes are so disgusting they pose a health hazard, this is a child-owned challenge. Maybe kids at school will give him a hard time and he'll change his jeans, or maybe he'll just grow out of the stage. Either way, intervening would be a selfish act. You wouldn't be thinking about what's right for your kid in the long term; you'd be thinking of what's right for you in the short run.


3. When the child messes up, empathize.

Your child might regret leaving her coat at home, or being mean to her friend, or not doing her laundry. She might complain, whine or even cry. That's okay. Instead of rescuing the child (“Here, you can have my coat!”) or issuing one of the dozens of feeling blockers we talk about in ParentShift (criticizing, lecturing, minimizing, I-told-you-soing...), just empathize.


"It's so much colder in the theater than you thought it would be! I see how disappointed and frustrated you are that we can't go back and get your coat."


4. Show confidence in the child.


This part is so key. Parents who are all empathy and no confidence may rear children who act and/or feel helpless. When the moment is right and your child has been heard, voice confidence in him.


"I believe in you."

"I trust you to do what's best for you."

"You'll find a way out of this."

"What will you do?"

"You make good decisions for yourself."

"I know you can handle this."


Say these things. Say them often. Mean them.


5. Do not expect solutions to come on your timeline.


Give your child time to mope, pout, cry, worry, rage and think. When you try to bring an end to your child's negative emotions — when you swoop in to relieve her distress or rush a solution — you siphon off some of her problem and use it to create your own. Kids need time to sit with their problems, just the way we do. It's how they learn to problem-solve. So dig deep and find your patience, slow down your breathing, hold yourself together, and allow your child to deal with the problem in her own way and on her own time table.


In the theater scenario, maybe she'll ask you to snuggle her for a minute. (Lucky you!) Maybe she'll ask her sibling to share his coat. Maybe she'll just make peace with reality; after all, being a little chilly is not the end of the world. Whatever happens, she'll have learned two important lessons: She is in charge of her body, and it pays to think ahead.


•••


We are all are suffering so much anxiety from Covid-19 right now, it's little wonder The Atlantic editors decided to give some serious attention to this issue. I'm sure glad they did. If it takes a global pandemic to start addressing childhood anxiety, well, hey, keep those silver linings coming.

Idea for a post? Shoot me an email anytime at parentshiftbook@gmail.com.

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