Helicopter parenting: When hovering is a good idea

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You get the benefit of a life’s worth of choices when you’ve got a helicopter parent, but none of the learning that goes with making those decisions yourself. It’s crippling to a developing mind, say critics; the neural connections that help in problem-solving never form for those with helicopter parents.

However, experts while admitting to this stasis in growth, add that in certain situations, it must be done.

What is helicopter parenting?

The term first made an appearance in a 1969 book called ‘Between Parent and Teenager’ where a teen spoke about his mum watching over him like a helicopter. Bene Katabua, Educational Psychologist at Intercare Health Center in Abu Dhabi, says “Helicopter parents are described as overprotective, overinvolved, overly competitive and overly strict. These qualities (protectiveness, involvement, competitiveness, strictness) are not harmful in themselves, but helicopter parents tend to rely heavily on them as a way to manage their children.”

Kirstan P. Lloyd, Clinical Psychologist at UAE-based Reverse Psychology, for example, says: “For all the bad press that helicopter parenting can acquire, sadly there are times in my practice that almost demand helicopter parenting. Here, helicopter parenting may represent an increased parental vigilance where we show an increased awareness of our children and may monitor their moods, mental states, behaviours and thoughts more attentively.”

She offers the following instances where one is forced into the role:

Physical illness: When a child suffers from an illness and needs more parental focus. This can be both chronic and acute.

Medication: Linked to illness, when children are on medication parents often need to be mindful and vigilant over how the child responds to the medication. This can be more pronounced with more severe illnesses – such as traumatic brain injuries, seizures, etc.

Children can sometimes flow between states of resilience and states of emotional sensitivity. In these instances, they may need increased parental focus and the reassurance that their parents are attuned and available.

– Kirstan P. Lloyd

Mental health issues: When a child is afflicted by illnesses or mental states which are life-threatening, such as an eating disorder, suicidal ideation/suicidality, substance abuse, self-harming, etc.

Times of trauma: When the child and/or family is experiencing a trauma (such as the death of a loved one) or a major transition (such as emigration, the birth of a sibling, a new school).

Sensitive kids: Children can sometimes flow between states of resilience and states of emotional sensitivity. For example, children can appear to be fine and meet day-to-day challenges head on some days, yet, at other times may seem more vulnerable to daily stressors and therefore need more from their parents. In these instances, they may need increased parental focus and the reassurance that their parents are attuned and available.

When bullying is involved: Dr Ateeq Qureshi, Child and Adolescent Consultant Psychiatrist, Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, adds: “Sometimes a child may have specific needs that necessitate the parent having closer than usual involvement, for example, a child that is being bullied and not able to advocate for themselves. It would be important for the parent to play an enabling role and to have that close involvement, but only as long and as much as is necessary.”

Sometimes a child may have specific needs that necessitate the parent having closer than usual involvement, for example, a child that is being bullied and not able to advocate for themselves.

– Dr Ateeq Qureshi

Internet interaction: The net can be a dangerous place for vulnerable young minds. “The online space is an area where many parents should actually have a good understanding of their children’s activities and that requires them to pay close attention and have safeguards in place. Again, a judgement about what level of intrusiveness is necessary and open communication with the child is important. Generally, parents would do well to be more closely involved in parenting their child in the online space early on and, as the child gets older, they can step back as long as good habits and effective safeguards have been embedded,” he adds.

Priyanka Dang, Clinical Psychologist, Open Minds Psychiatry Counselling and Neuroscience centre, Dubai, suggests kids may benefit from this style if:

They have a difficult temperament: Helicopter parenting might be helpful for children who have a difficult temperament (high, often impulsive activity level; extra sensitive to sensory stimulation; overwhelmed by change in routines and new experiences; adapt slowly to change, not able to calm themselves well; irregular biological rhythms, such as hunger/sleep schedules). It gives them a sense of predictability, security, and routine.

They are anxious: In case of children who are anxious in new situations and/or slow to warm up, helicopter parenting can give them a sense of being seen and provide the extra push they always need to get involved in the present situation/activity.

“When combined with positive parenting, helicopter parenting can help the child in being punctual and always prepared for the next task at hand. Helicopter parents would do everything in their capacity to resolve such critical issues,” she adds.

When combined with positive parenting, helicopter parenting can help the child in being punctual and always prepared for the next task at hand. Helicopter parents would do everything in their capacity to resolve such critical issues.

– Priyanka Dang

Too much togetherness

There is of course such a thing as too much help. “By the time I was 15, I’d need to call my mother to talk to her about my meal choices,” laughs Reshma, who requested her name be changed for privacy. “She is a typical helicopter parent who wants to be involved in every decision I make.”

This sort of inability to hone in on a choice remains a great drawback, according to opponents of the behavior. The mutating brain needs challenges – to break neural pathways, to create channels of thought, to delete some processes and reinforce others. For each prune, a stronger connection is made. Now, take the challenge out of the docket. How does one grow? And this essentially, is what experts warn ‘helicopter parents’ about.

Other drawbacks, warns Dr Qureshi, are:

  • It stunts individuation,
  • Promotes dependence, and
  • Reduces the development of resilience.

With all the drawbacks laid bare, one must ask – why are some people drawn to or have slipped into this style of child management?

Dr Sana Kausar, Family Medicine Consultant, King’s College Hospital London, explains that there may be several factors at play here.

A neglected childhood: “It could be that when you were growing up, you got neglected. So you want to be like, ‘Well, I’m not going to let that happen to my kids’. Or if you got hurt, or you didn’t have the strategies in place so you’re trying to overcompensate,” she explains.

Fear of the future: Parents’ knee-jerk reaction to any perceived threat is to shield. They may fear what is to come and so are shielding their children.

It could be that when you were growing up, you got neglected. So you want to be like, ‘Well, I’m not going to let that happen to my kids’. Or if you got hurt, or you didn’t have the strategies in place so you’re trying to overcompensate.

– Dr Sana Kausar

Peer pressure: “Maybe the parents are comparing their children to other people’s kids, and they don’t want them to fall behind. So that’s why they push them so hard,” she adds.

A case of mistaken identity: Maybe somebody’s a stay-at-home mum, and she’s very intelligent. And she doesn’t feel like she’s utilising her brain enough. So she’s just going to over focus on the kids, says Dr Kausar. “Because it’s giving her a sense of purpose and it becomes an identity – ‘I’m the supermom, I take my kids to everything. They do everything. They’re on the team for everything’,” she adds.

Kids need to hurt

All those horrible experiences you want to bundle your baby against, they are essential. “Part of being out in the world is disappointment and failure. And that’s why hurting yourself, falling over and getting up again is important. “If you bubble wrap children, and then expect them to go out into the world as you know, healthy adults [it won’t happen]. And this is the thing, because eventually it leads to the children becoming anxious because they haven’t come across [a] situation [and don’t know how to deal with it],” says Dr Sana Kausar – Family Medicine Consultant, King’s College Hospital London.

Co-parenting with a helicopter parent

Parenting is tough. Co-parenting can be harder. “It’s hard when you’re on the same page. And then, if you’ve got two people that have got different parenting styles that both have access to your kids [it can be disastrous]. You still have to try and model the best for your kids and give them the right tools. And also, positively let them know, look, people are different. Because your dad does X, Y, or Z that doesn’t make it right or wrong, like doesn’t mean he’s wrong, it’s just that I do things differently,” says Dr Kausar.

This difference can actually mint much hardier children, she suggests, for it shows them first-hand that people are different; their thoughts, behaviours and style are different. “They have to adapt to each parent,” she adds.

Checklist

Wondering if you are hovering too much?  US-based WebMD sets store in the following signs:

  • You fight your child’s battles
  • You do their schoolwork
  • You coach their coaches
  • You keep your kids on a short leash
  • You are a maid in your own house
  • You play it too safe
  • You can’t let them fail

How much is too much?

There’s a fine line between good parenting and over-parenting, agree experts. And even in the scenarios that call for greater vigilance, one must exercise caution. Lloyd explains: “In situations which demand helicopter parenting, it is important to constantly monitor and evaluate our parenting to ensure that it does not cause other secondary psychosocial or emotional challenges in the child. For example, a child who is ill and has a helicopter parent may internalise that they are sickly and need protection. This could then result in them feeling disempowered or developing a poor sense of their own mastery.

“Another possible pitfall is that children may use the concerning emotional state or behaviour for ‘attention seeking’. There is often a fine line between being attuned and emotionally available for our children when the situation demands, and being co-dependent.”

If the relationship finds itself in a co-dependent state, it may start to blur the lines of individual identity, she warns.

You’ll also find environments whereby helicopter parenting is more prevalent, and parents value being very involved in their child’s lives, and find like-minded families.

– Bene Katabua

Cultural quotient

Are parenting strategies crafted by culture? Perhaps. “Some parents value allowing their child to forge their own path and gravitate towards families who share similar practices. You’ll also find environments whereby helicopter parenting is more prevalent, and parents value being very involved in their child’s lives, and find like-minded families,” explains Katabua.

Cure to overstepping

Think you are a helicopter parent and want to stop hovering? Do this:

1. Introspection: Once you know the why, the how to rehabilitate will become easier.

2. Find a sounding board: Speak to someone neutral to figure out the difference between reality and perception.

3. Take baby steps towards change: Slowly loosen the reins on decision-making.

Freedom and discipline, firmness and gentleness are all knitted into the tightrope all parents must walk. Find yourself asking if you are making the right call? Ask a healthcare professional, suggests Dr Kausar.

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