The biggest parenting challenge is knowing when to step in to help and guide and when to step back and permit the child to independently solve life’s challenges — from scraped knees and kindergarten fights, through the terrible middle school adjustments and, finally, the trials, tribulations, triumphs, and defeats of high school and university.
Finding oneself is serious business, and it is not a good thing to outsource the task — especially not to mom and dad. Most successful people had parents who saw their children’s potential and focused on creating opportunities for the achievement of the perceived potential. But once the opportunity is presented, the taking of it has to be left to the child. That is a lesson parents sometimes have a hard time grasping.
The term “helicopter parenting” is applied to over-protective and supervisory parents of high school or college-aged students, parents who are perhaps more protective and supervisory of their children than necessary or beneficial. Over-protectiveness can begin very early on, often immediately after the birth of a child. It becomes a problem if it does not fade as the baby develops and grows. When that happens, toddlers and elementary school students are, in fact, hindered in their development by what has been defined as helicopter parenting.
While a newborn baby certainly needs round-the-clock care and protectiveness, exaggerated vigilance and protectiveness that continue well after that intensive bonding and caring period can have deleterious consequences.
Those who hover and want to do everything for their children lest they have a negative experience or — heaven forbid — a failure, often affect more damage than assistance. Believing that your child can successfully manage the normal Sturm und Drang of growing up is the most supportive expression of love. Doubting the child’s ability and jumping in to save and protect at every small twist and turn is often perceived by the child as a doubt of his or her ability to cope. When doubt is expressed by the parents, the child can hardly question its justification.
The most serious detriment of helicopter parenting is that it interferes with the development of self-efficacy. Of course, “do everything” parents have good intentions. The problem is that “do everything” parents love their children anxiously, and when they hover and micro-manage every little detail of their children’s lives, they instill their own anxiety into their kids. Imperceptibly at first, but steadily, their kids begin to mirror their parents’ discomfort in social situations, their fear of failure and, often, fear of even the faintest uncertainty.
Too much “help” can actually hurt your child’s success. Experts in child development want to scream: Stop in the name of love!
What to do if a child seems to not know what is best and, worse still, if he or she seems to not want to do what is best?
Noelle, a participant in a women’s group I lead in my practice, lamented that she was in a dilemma. Her 13-year-old son, Jack, back in school barely a week, already waged a full-blown homework war. The boy was a master procrastinator, avoiding what had to be done with willfulness and wile. He waited until the 11th hour to complete his papers, then begged and pleaded to have Noelle help him write and type them. Not wanting him to do poorly in school, Noelle typically gave in: “I know he should do his own work, but he cares so much about his grades that I just can’t say no to him. And he’s also pressuring me to take him to tutors who will help him get his schoolwork done.”
Denise, another woman in the group, nodded sympathetically, then spoke of her daughter who was a junior in college. She said that her husband had been editing every paper that their daughter wrote. She said that her husband was a good writer and editor, but she worried that her daughter was too dependent on his help: “I would’ve thought by this time that Carly would be more independent. But she’s so worried about getting into graduate school that it’s hard not to help her fulfill her dreams.”
Studies have shown that overprotective, “do everything” parents engender in their children a lack of self-agency, or self-confidence. Never having had a chance to learn independence and self-reliance, they often don’t believe they can produce a desired outcome without their parents’ involvement. They don’t see themselves as agents in the achievement of a desired objective.
By doing everything, parents can hinder the development of self-efficacy in their children. In fact, by doing everything, parents can instill a “can’t-do” rather than a can-do reaction to even the simplest of life’s challenges. Children who have everything done for them lose the chance to develop valuable coping skills, to gain self-confidence, and to learn to bounce back from failure when necessary.
Why do so many parents feel compelled to help too much?
Most commonly, fear of dire consequences can cause a parent to step in and take charge. “If I don’t finish the science project for her, she’ll fail the class and never get into college,” or “If I don’t remind him to get to soccer practice on time every day, he’ll get cut from the team.”
Some helicopter parents received too little help from their parents or they, too, had overprotective, overbearing parents and are simply continuing the tradition.
It’s always helpful to analyze one’s habits and compulsive behavior. Many of us try to heal our own wounds and hurts by treating our children as if they have the same wounds and hurts. In other words, we, without actually being conscious of it, use our kids to compensate and correct things we feel were wrong with our own upbringing. Many of my clients who were under-attended by their parents compensate by over-attending their own children with laser beam intensity.
Feelings of anxiety about the world in general can drive parents to take control in the belief that they can keep their child from ever being hurt or disappointed.
Parental peer pressure
Sometimes, parenting becomes competitive. When observing other parents “fighting” to optimize their children’s experience, one can feel pressure to do the same, to level the playing field.
To stop hurting your children by helping too much: Reflect before reacting. Ask yourself if your involvement is helping your child in the long run. Ask yourself if your interference would prevent your child from developing the necessary self-reliance that is needed to function independently in life and to develop the self-confidence that comes from taking charge of a situation themselves — when developmentally appropriate, of course.
Finally, there is no perfect formula for parenting. But there is one somewhat old-fashioned rule: Do not try to be a perfect parent of a perfect child in a perfect world. Teach your child by example that true success is just doing one’s best — one’s own best.
Carolyn Daitch is director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders in Farmington Hills, Mich. and author of The Road to Calm Workbook: Life-changing Tools to Stop Runaway Emotions.