Helicopter parenting

January 25th, 2016

Affluenza teen and his mom

If you pay attention to the news or social media, then you’ve probably heard of the “affluenza” teen who gained the spotlight again this past December. Ethan Couch was given this moniker after a judge sentenced him to probation instead of jail time when, at the age of 16, he killed four people in a drunken-driving accident in Texas in 2013. His defense team cited “affluenza” as a factor, suggesting that because he was overly protected by his parents — from a wealthy family and spoiled — he didn’t understand the consequences of his actions.

Because he violated the terms of his parole, a warrant was issued for his arrest last month. His mother, Tonya Couch, is accused of helping her son flee to Mexico to avoid arrest. On December 28, they were found and she was arrested and brought back to Texas, with charges of hindering the apprehension of a felon.

While this case of extreme helicopter parenting generated strong media buzz, child experts agree that the phenomenon is widespread across the United States, particularly in middle- and upper-class segments. Although many schools and churches express concern over the lack of parental involvement, others struggle with parents who hover unnecessarily over their kids or who solve problems for them that they could figure out on their own.

What is a helicopter parent?

The first use of the phrase helicopter parent is attributed to Dr. Haim Ginott. In his 1969 book Parents & Teenagers, he wrote about teens who said their parents would “hover over them like a helicopter.” Similar terms include lawnmower parenting (parents who mow down obstacles for their children) and overparenting. Carolyn Daitch, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders, defines helicopter parents as those who “typically take too much responsibility for their children’s experiences and, specifically, their successes or failures.” Merriam-Webster.com defines the term as “a parent who is overly involved in the life of his or her child.”

According to an article on Parents.com, helicopter parenting is most often seen in parents of high school or college-aged students. Such parents take over tasks that their children are fully capable of completing alone. For example, many college professors get calls from parents about poor grades or schedule problems, often with demands from the parent to fix the problem so their child won’t be upset or have to struggle in any way. My son told me about a parent who went with his college-aged son for an internship interview and expected to sit in on it! The pestering of my son with questions about how his own internship interview went paled in comparison.

Former Stanford University dean Julie Lythcott-Haims has written a book on the problems with overparenting titled How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success. She recounts stories of intelligent, accomplished young adults who were also depressed and fragile. As a dean, she would counsel college kids who had no passion for the items on their resume and hear stories from them about parents who micromanaged study schedules. Many admitted they studied science, played piano or did community service projects only because their parents insisted.

Lythcott-Haims cites several studies showing a correlation between mental health issues in college kids and overparenting. For example, a 2011 study at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga found that students with “hovering” parents were more likely to be medicated for anxiety or depression. She believes that when parents do the hard stuff for kids — reminding them of deadlines, paying bills, asking questions, talking to strangers, confronting authorities — students are left unprepared for college or work. “They will experience setbacks, which will feel to them like failure. Lurking beneath the problem of whatever thing needs to be handled is the student’s inability to differentiate the self from the parent,” says Lythcott-Haims.

Why parents helicopter

Helicopter parenting can happen at any age, not just with older teens and young adults. Some parents of toddlers constantly shadow their children and don’t allow play time alone. In elementary school, a helicopter parent might help too much with homework or ensure that a child gets a particular teacher. While engaged parenting can build self-confidence, overparenting can lead to decreased self-esteem, lack of coping skills, anxiety, a sense of entitlement and undeveloped life skills.

Parents.com identifies four reasons why parents helicopter: (1) fear of dire consequences—parents often don’t understand that disappointment over not making the team or getting a low grade can be a great lesson for a child; (2) feelings of anxiety — worries about the economy or the state of the world can push parents to exhibit too much control over their children’s lives in an effort to protect them; (3) overcompensation — adults who didn’t have a happy childhood might be prone to excessive attention on their own child; and (4) peer pressure from other parents — feelings of guilt can cause some to model the behavior of other parents who overparent.

Effective parenting

Fortunately, a number of resources are available to help parents to be supportive and loving and to nurture their kids into resilient, independent adults. For example, the Love and Logic program developed by Jim Fay and Foster Cline in the 1970’s “teaches children to be responsible, and prepares young people to live in the real world, with its many choices and consequences.” This program identifies three types of parents: (1) the helicopter parent (who hovers over his or her children and rescues them from a hostile world); (2) the drill sergeant (who commands and directs the lives of his or her children); and (3) the consultant (who provides guidance and consultant services for his or her children). According to Love and Logic, the consultant parent has the ideal mix of attributes, providing messages of personal worth to kids, seldom mentioning responsibilities but rather modeling self-care and responsibility, providing children with options but allowing them to make their own decisions, and allowing children to experience life’s natural consequences.

In addition to Love and Logic, many churches provide courses aimed at helping parents at every point along the parenting spectrum. For example, Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas offers classes for parents on topics such as spiritual formation, raising boys, single parenting, raising teen daughters, behavior problems and human sexuality.

Personal reflection

I finished up this article after I returned from the funeral for a beautiful, smart, 22-year-old woman who was friends with my son in high school. The last act her mom did for her was an attempt to prevent her daughter from drinking and driving by taking her car away, yet she died after being hit by a vehicle while walking home. It doesn’t really matter what happened or how, just that her parents loved her and were only trying to protect her — which is why as parents, we hover and worry over our children. It’s our natural instinct.

To trust these precious gifts to God is incredibly difficult, but ultimately it’s our only choice. Without prayer, spiritual growth and wisdom in our own lives, healthy parenting (or grandparenting) is difficult, if not impossible. As the Bible reminds us in James 1:5, “Anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score.” Now that’s a good Father.

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