Dealing with the helicopter parents

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Photo: iStock

Helicopter parents are those that micro-manage their children’s lives and continually demand success. But research is showing the negative impact that this is having on young people. Karen Sullivan explains

David Hanson, the chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, claims that anxious parents are breeding a generation of “clueless” children, who never experience any physical risks. He suggests that they are damaging children by living “precariously through their achievements” and by adding unnecessary pressures in academic and extra-curricular activities. And he’s right.

While there is a great deal of under and even absent parenting going on across the socio-economic strata in every school, the group to which he refers, the “helicopter” parents, run a real risk of damaging their children’s development, self-esteem, ability to cope and to develop resilience in the “real world” that exists around and after the secondary years.

Researchers from Brigham Young University in the USA found that helicopter parenting is associated with lower levels of self-worth and higher levels of risk behaviours in young adults. Larry Nelson, lead author of its report – Is Hovering Smothering or Loving? – noted: “From our past work, we thought there might be something positive about helicopter parenting under certain conditions, but we’re just not finding it. Stepping in and doing for a child what the child developmentally should be doing for him or herself is negative, regardless of the form of control.”

The team’s earlier research found that over-involvement in a young adult’s life deprives them of the skills necessary for success in marriage, careers and adult social interactions.

Another US study, undertaken by Keene State College, found that post-secondary students who grew up with over-protective parents tended to be less open to new ideas and actions, as well as more vulnerable, anxious and self-conscious, compared with kids who had more distant parents.

More recently, researchers at UCL, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, found that psychological control (including not allowing children to make decisions, invading their privacy and fostering dependence) is significantly associated with lower life satisfaction and emotional wellbeing.

Most teachers will be aware of the parents who micro-manage their children’s lives, and pop in for a “chat” (or a harangue) at the first sign that said children are not performing at top level, receiving the highest grades or honours, taking part in the A team for sports, or given a solo in a musical performance or the lead in the play.

These are the parents whose children are either clubbed to death with after-school activities or swept away instantly by hovering parents who move them on to another enriching experience. These parents edit school work, write personal statements, and press for resit and re-marks.

So what to do? The first thing is to establish from the outset (admission to the school, the beginning of every school year and every term) that you are an “empowering” school, and expect parents to respect that. Hand them the research. There’s loads of it around.

Point out that students will learn important life lessons by being given the freedom to make mistakes, to take responsibility for their own successes and failures. They learn to problem-solve, to develop coping skills, to take satisfaction in genuine achievement, which has an impact on their overall emotional health.

Furthermore, a multitude of research suggests that over-involvement in children’s lives and schooling can result in poorer grades or, at the very least, no input. Parents need to be aware that the risks far outweigh any perceived benefits.

Put in place a zero-tolerance approach to parents doing homework for their children, with an appropriate penalty, and make this clear. Communicate regularly with parents so that they don’t feel they need to pop in for “check-ups” regularly, and when they do pay unnecessary or too frequent visits, suggest that you will discuss the matter with their child, thus putting the solution to any potential problem firmly in the hands of the student and not his or her parent.

Equally, try not to give parents instant access. Set up regular meetings and discourage emails about anything other than essential matters. Direct them back to their child at the earliest opportunity.

Encourage independence on all levels, and confirm to parents the benefits of giving their children freedom and room to grow and develop at the appropriate age. It is also worth explaining the risks to emotional and physical health that can be the result of overscheduling children, and that includes activities, tutoring and everything else that takes up time that would be better spent interacting with peers, sleeping, relaxing, dreaming and “playing”.

Set up a debate or get students to write a guest blog for the school newspaper on the subjects. While we cannot tell parents how to “parent”, we can provide them with markers that can at least give food for thought.

Ensure that the students develop the confidence to speak to you about problems; keeping the door open and establishing a good rapport will help them to make their own decisions and solve their own problems. Provide support and encouragement, and empower students to set their own realistic goals and make necessary adjustments when mistakes are made or they don’t achieve what they set out to do.

Above all, provide opportunities for responsibility and freedom within the school community – teach life-skills, celebrate independent thinking and action, encourage kids to stand up for themselves and make their own decisions, to take risks, to play. Give them wings to soar far above that helicopter.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com

Further reading

  • Is Hovering Smothering or Loving? An examination of parental warmth as a moderator of relations between helicopter parenting and emerging adults’ indices of adjustment, Brigham Young University, June 2015: http://bit.ly/1jsvjld
  • ‘Helicopter’ Parents Have Neurotic Kids, Study Suggests: summary of Keene State College research (June 2010): http://bit.ly/1Vk891u
  • Children of More Caring, Less Controlling Parents Live Happier Lives: summary of UCL research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology (September 2015): http://bit.ly/1RcRMxM
  • Helicopter Parents, Evely and Ganim, 2011, (includes tips for dealing with these parents):
    http://bit.ly/1L1sHF4
  • Five Reasons Why Helicopter Parents Are Sabotaging Their Child’s Career, Forbes Magazine, May 2015 (an article that could be handed to parents): http://onforb.es/1YLlLSo
  • Grounds for Learning: 11-18 secondary school play, Robinson, October 2014 (excellent piece on the importance of play in secondary schools): http://bit.ly/1PKKjVE


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