Published on June 18, 2019

Are you a ‘helicopter parent?’

Helicopter Parents

If you are an over-controlling parent, listen up. A new study recently released warns that “helicoptering” can impede the emotional development of children.

Directing your toddler’s every move may ultimately undermine their ability to manage their emotions and behavior on their own, explained lead author Nicole Perry in an interview with CBS News.

Early toddler-hood is a critical time in the development of self-regulation skills, where children are exploring their limits and seeking autonomy, she explained.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota were looking to see how parents who exerted excessive control over their toddlers might affect their child’s development of behavioral and emotional control, as well as their management of social situations and friendships as they reached pre-adolescence.

The study followed 422 mother-child pairs for eight years. It did not include fathers.

Beginning at age 2, the pairs were observed in a lab setting, engaging in pretend play and a clean-up task. Researchers scored the extent to which the mother overreached, by being demanding or strict, guiding or structuring the play, or completing the tasks themselves. What they found was children who were overly managed by their mothers at age 2 had a significantly harder time regulating their emotions and controlling their behavior as they aged. At age 5 and 10 these children self reported more emotional difficulties and school-related problems. They tended to act out, which, in some cases, impacted their academic success. Their teacher’s observations about them confirmed the difficulties.

Children who were allowed to self-manage were better able to tune out the noise and ignore negative social cues. They developed the resiliency necessary for the demands of school, academic performance and friendships as they aged.

Pediatrician Leif Norenberg, MD wasn’t surprised by the study’s findings.

“(Helicopter parenting) is a real phenomenon,” he said. “Did I see this 25 years ago? I really don’t think so.”

Is Social Media to Blame?

Creating a family dynamic where allowing even the youngest of our children to engage in trial and error is essential to their development.

“What we all strive for is raising kids who are independent, resilient, and who can make their own decisions ultimately,” said Dr. Norenberg, who practices at Briarpatch Pediatrics in Sandwich and Yarmouthport. “But, if you are always making their decisions for them, that’s not going to happen.”

The recent college cheating scandal is an example of an extreme version of parental overreach, he said. “It represents the culmination of what was probably years of helicopter parenting that ended up in immoral, unethical and criminal behavior. They have become the new poster children. I didn’t think it could ever go that far.”

While there are many theories about why contemporary parents are willing to go so far to manage and control their children, the answer may lie in the arrival of the cell phone as our constant companion.

“Social media sites like Facebook provide a way to showcase what other kids are doing,” said Dr. Norenberg. “Parents may compare their children’s accomplishments to what their friends are posting, and feel the pressure to push harder.”

The world may also seem like it’s a scarier place today, with things like school shootings being every parent’s worst nightmare. The mother bear instinct may be pushed into over-drive.

“I see it all the time. Instead of using challenging or awkward situations as opportunities to teach children negotiating or problem-solving skills, parents tend to immediately remove the child from the situation, instead,” Dr. Norenberg said.

Are You Over-Parenting?

“If you are micromanaging your child’s every move and not allowing them the opportunity to do simple things for themselves like choose a playmate, dust themselves off on occasion, or put on their own Band-Aid, that’s one warning sign,” said Dr. Norenberg.

He notes that keeping kids safe from bullying (or abuse) is an entirely different issue and one where parent intervention is important.

Dr. Norenberg offers these strategies that parents of young children can employ to assure that they aren’t getting in the way of their children developing the skills necessary for success:

  • Allow your child to interact with other children on the playground and let them make friends on their own.
  • Let them try to solve their own conflicts first.
  • Resist answering for your child.
  • Offer positive reinforcement, especially when they dust themselves off.
  • Don’t offer false praise.
  • Teach them to respect themselves as well as others.
  • Set a good example and laugh things off.
  • Let them fall down and get back up.
  • Respond but do not overreact.
  • Remain calm.
  • Put down your own phone and connect in person.
  • Model good behavior and try to use humor to diffuse conflict instead of anger or rage.
  • Let them get their own Band-Aid!

“You need to let your children fall down and stand back up to build their resilience and emotional maturity. You don’t want them going through life being a train wreck, especially when mom and dad aren’t going to be there to save them,” said Dr. Norenberg.