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Published on August 2, 2017

Why Do Parents Become Helicopter Parents

Why Do Parents Become Helicopter Parents

It began innocently enough with Suzy helping her daughter Jane with her 1st grade diorama. Her daughter began the diorama on her own, but Suzy began to see that it looked as though a 3 year old had done the work. She knew she needed to intervene or her daughter would not get a good grade on the project and would be hurt when she saw how good the other kid’s projects looked. Suzy knew that all the other parents would be helping their kids. She didn’t want her daughter’s project to look like a joke. Suzy did such a great job on her daughter’s diorama that she got an A+. What a relief, since she was certain the diorama that Jane had begun would have resulted in a failing grade.

Suzy then started helping Jane with other homework projects, essays, and even extra curricular efforts like debate and mock trial speeches. Jane earned high marks in school and all her teachers adored her. Unfortunately, a day came when Suzy was no longer able to help Jane with all of these school projects. Jane went off the college and found herself overwhelmed. Instead of making A’s, she was now barely pulling C grades. She was feeling stressed out, defeated, and depressed.

Suzy’s case is becoming more and more common.

Our culture of competition is making parents try even harder when it comes to parenting their kids, which can lead to helicopter parenting. Many parents believe they are using good parenting skills to the max. Unfortunately, maximizing good parenting skills can skew the skill and it is no longer beneficial. For example, a parent who helps their child with homework when the child is struggling and asking for help is far different from a parent who hovers over their child at the table each night as the child completes hours of homework under the strict guidance of their parent.

Helicopter parenting is taking a good parenting skill to the extreme, where it is no longer helpful or beneficial in the long run. Helicopter parents are taking over their kid’s lives to the detriment of their children. There is a rise in the prevalence of helicopter parenting and a subsequent rise of children who are truly struggling when they leave home to begin life as an adult. Over parenting is harming our kids in the long run.

Research has shown that there is a correlation between helicopter parenting and children who develop depression and anxiety. This research also showed that these young adults had poorer coping skills, less ability to think creatively on their own, and had difficulties in problem-solving.[1]

How Parents Become Helicopter Parents

The first reason that most parents become helicopter parents is because they want their children to be safe.  This form of helicopter parenting is often seen with the parent who is following their child all over the jungle gym even holding them down the slide out of fear that they will get hurt if they are left to play on their own.

Some fears are legitimate when it comes to safety and some are stretching the fear to far and a blanket of worry envelops not only the mom or dad, but subsequently the rest of the family. Allowing for small injuries on the jungle gym is ok and even helpful in the long run, as children learn to be more careful on their own.  Otherwise, children may end up with bigger injuries when they experience bigger physical challenges, such as a skate board park when parents aren’t there to prevent injuries and provide the words of caution.

A few injuries when they are younger and in safer environments (places intended for small children to play) will help them learn on their own that they need to protect themselves from harm. Children need to learn to protect themselves from harm, as they will not always have their parents there to protect them, especially as they get older.

They love their children and don’t want to see them fail.  Parents want their children to succeed in life, as they want them to feel that confidence of doing well in life.  They desire the best for their children and their abilities.  They don’t want their children to be harmed, and failures can be painful.  However, not allowing for small failures prevents them from learning how to cope with failure, which creates more problems for children in their future.

The parent’s ego gets in the way. Too many parents are identifying their own personhood with their child’s.  They see their child’s failures and successes as their own. Therefore, they want to help their child be a success, so they over-parent to the detriment of their child in the long term.  Parents must separate their identity from their child’s for the sake of their child’s future.

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The Fallout of Helicopter Parenting

When parents over-parent or engage in helicopter parenting they are hindering their child in the following ways:

Stifle Creativity

That homework project they were assigned was for them to brainstorm and creatively think about in order to construct the project of their own ideas. If parents give their kids the ideas and brainstorm the ideas for them, they are stealing the opportunities for their children to think creatively.

Instead, parents need to allow their children to think creatively in constructing their projects or assignments.

If they ask for help, a parent can help their child to help themselves. Asking open ended questions that can lead to the child producing creative thoughts is helpful. Children should be praised for their own thoughts, even if it is far different than what their parents would think or do.

Encouragement of the child to think for themselves and not minimize their intellectual capabilities by criticizing their thoughts in any way is paramount.  If their thoughts are unrealistic then parents can ask more open ended questions so that the child can realize they need to reel in the idea on their own and see the potential pitfalls along the way.

Children may surprise parents with their creativity and solutions to set backs along with way.

Prevent Development of Coping Skills

If Jane had earned a failing grade because of the diorama in 1st grade, she would have experienced a failure and learned how to handle those feelings.  She would have also learned that she earned her grade herself, which gives her more autonomy and power over her academic career very early in life.  Allowing for failures along the way, allows children to develop the skills for coping with those failures.  It also allows for them to react to the failures by trying things differently the next time or asking for help if needed (help, not the parent to take over the project).

Instead, parents need to allow their children to experience small failures along the way, so that they can develop healthy coping skills.

Parents need to refrain from rescuing their child from all of their small failures.  They need to allow them to fail on their own.  Parents will see that their child’s character will begin to develop. They will discover their work ethic along the way and they will figure out how to best handle failures on their own.

If parents rescue their kids from all the small failures, then what will happen when they have a huge failure (like dropping out of college or getting fired from their first job) and there is nothing a parent can do to solve this problem or prevent the failure once it happens?  That child, or young adult, can get seriously depressed or worse, since they don’t have adequate coping skills developed earlier in life.

Parents must allow for their children to fail.  A parent can help them cope with the failure in a healthy manner.  Children will subsequently learn to do things differently to have a different or better outcome next time round.

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In developing good coping skills, parents should be there to provide support. This means parents are there to listen to their child when they experience a failure, hard ship, or are simply dealing with a difficult situation.

A good way of coping with these things is to verbally talk things through and to use “I feel” statements.  Parents can help a child develop coping skills by encouraging their child to express their feeling about the situation at hand using “I feel” statements.  Utilizing this method helps children take responsibility for their role in the situation rather than pointing fingers at others and simply placing blaming on others.

Helping children open up and talk is one of the key ways to help them learn to cope with a situation.  They can also problem solve their issue while coping with the difficulties they are feeling at the same time, as they can go hand in hand.

It can be hard for a parent to see their child experience sadness, anger, and disappointment.  However, if they can learn how to cope with these feelings earlier in life they will be better equipped to handle even bigger issues as adults, which will inevitably come their way.

Take Away Chances to Build Self-Confidence

If a child’s grades are being earned by projects completed entirely or even partially by their parents, the child can’t feel confidence in their own abilities.  Kids are smart.  They know when they have or have not earned the grade or marks based on their own abilities.

If their parents are helping so much along the way, that child can feel that their parent is helping them because perhaps they are not capable of earning decent or acceptable grades. Their parents stepping in to help all the time undermines the confidence they may have in their own abilities.  If a parent is continually overstepping the child’s ideas and work for a project then that child will learn that their work is subpar and thus their confidence slips away.

Instead, parents need to encourage children in their own abilities and capabilities.

This means that parents need to allow their child to do projects on their own so that the child can earn the grade themselves so that they have confidence in their abilities.

When they do things on their own, it is empowering.  Even if the grade is not what a parent may desire, it’s more important that children are confident and able to do tasks on their own.  Parents can’t hold their child’s hand through adulthood and help with the projects that they will undertake on the job, so parents must allow them to experience doing things without help early in life.

Allowing for independence in the completion of their work will help them become confident and competent at the same time.

Inhibit Decision Making Practice

When a parent decides everything for their child from their clothing, to their food, to which schools to apply to study at, they are taking away that decision making power from their child.  If the child has not experienced the necessity of making everyday decisions, then they will be ill equipped to enter adulthood.

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Adults needs to be able to make good choices and decisions. If a child hasn’t been allowed choices or decisions, they haven’t experienced the success or failure of their own personal decisions.

Instead, parents need to help guide and direct their children on big life decisions but also allow them to make smaller choices and decisions along the way.

It is empowering for a child to make personal decisions over their life, but it can also be scary. That’s why parents must start small and grow the decision making abilities as their child matures and shows good judgement. A good parent isn’t going to allow their 5 year old to get a tattoo, because they want it and made that decision for themselves, as this is far too important and permanent decision. However, it is empowering at age 5 to allow the child to pick out their own clothing or to select gifts for their siblings for holidays.

Parents need to allow their children to begin to make age appropriate decisions at a young age, that way when they become adults they have made enough good and bad decisions along the way that they know the consequences. They also will develop personal preferences and opinions. These are all empowering things to have as a young adult.

Obscure the Consequences of Their Own Behavior

If a parent is continually bailing out their child from bad situations and not allowing consequences to occur, then the child will not develop an understanding for real consequences.

For example, if a child is continually late for school and they walk themselves to school, yet their parent calls the principal and takes the blame, thereby getting the child out of detention, then the child has not learned that being late for school leads to detentions. They learned that their parent can bail them out and get them out of trouble. This can lead to higher risk behavior because the child believes their parent can rescue them from consequences.

Instead, parents need to allow their child to take responsibility for the actions and suffer the consequences.

Will it be hard for a parent to see their child suspended or kicked out of an activity because of their actions? Of course. But these are all learning experiences. The goal is for a child to understand that their behavior affects themselves and others. Consequences are essential to this learning process. If a parent always prevents the consequence then the child does not learn the lesson. This can lead to worse behavior and worse consequences that a parent may not be able to help their child with in the future (such as jail time).

Parents who allow their children to learn from their consequences are being good parents, even if those consequences are difficult on the child and parent.

Hinder Independent Problem Solving Skills

Problem solving is an essential life skill in order to become a competent adult. If a parent is always solving their child’s problems that child doesn’t learn how to think of solutions on their own and carry out these solutions. If the parent is problem solving for their child always because they are trying to make their child’s life easier, they are doing a huge disservice to this child.

How will they know what to do when their flight is cancelled someday in the future, or what to do about their flat tire when they are stranded on the side of the highway? They can call their parent for advice, but what if that parent isn’t available? Their ability to survive in the real world is greatly diminished when parents problem solve their issues all throughout childhood.

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Instead, children need to experience problem solving from early on in life to learn how to get out of tough situations.  Parents can guide their children through appropriate questioning to get their child started in the right direction.

For example, if a child cannot find their toy anywhere and they go to Mom to find it, then what is the best response from Mom? Is it to go and look for the toy? Or is it better for Mom to ask the child where they last had the toy and suggest that they take some action on their own?  The later is more helpful, as it empowers the child to think about where to begin looking for the toy and they do it on their own.  They will find the toy and thus solve this problem with little to no help at all.

That is goal of parenting, to help our children develop skills by which they can solve their own problems as they arise in life.  If they feel that their parents will solve their problems, then they will become dependent on their parents for this life skill that is utterly essential for survival in the real world.

Parents must help their children problem solve their own issues early in life, with some guidance and directed questions, but allowing the child to follow through with the solution on their own. Doing so will empower their child to eventually become independent problem solvers in the future.

Helicopter Parenting Turns Children into Sheep

The end result of parents who helicopter parent their children is young adults who don’t know how to be human on their own, they are merely sheep and the parents are the shepherds.

Children who grow up with helicopter parents don’t have the skills needed to make life decisions, to cope when things go bad, and they don’t understand the consequences of bad decisions and behavior. Their parents have been hovering over them for years, making every decision, completing every project, and controlling every behavior to the point that the child doesn’t have an identity that is separated from their parent and likewise for the parent.

Parents whose ego or identity is tied to their child will make decisions on the basis of themselves, rather than allowing for the child to have autonomy (with some parental guidance and direction along the way). Parents must realize that independence, and to experience failure, are essential to creating competent and successful adults. If children never experience failure or the ability  to even make their own decisions during childhood, they won’t be able do so in adulthood.

Parents need to allow for their children to do the things that they are able to do, to try to do the things they may be able to do, and to allow for failure and consequences along the way in order to learn from these things. Doing so will help children become autonomous, confident, and competent young adults ready to take on the world, not sheep who enter adulthood and the real world without their shepherd.

Featured photo credit: Helicopter Parents via bing.com

Reference

More by this author

Dr. Magdalena Battles

Doctor of Psychology

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Published on July 13, 2018

Striving Towards Secure Attachment: How to Restructure Your Thoughts

Striving Towards Secure Attachment: How to Restructure Your Thoughts

What if you could discover some tools and methods that could improve your relationships? What if by gaining a little knowledge you could understand your relationship dynamics better and give them a boost up?

By learning what secure attachment is and how to restructure your thoughts, you can become more self-aware of your relationship dynamics. After becoming more aware, you can then take a few steps to make them better than ever. That’s something that many of us could benefit from.

When we hear the term secure attachment, our mind typically goes to a relationship. And that’s exactly what it’s about.

In this article I’ll discuss the concept of secure attachments in more detail and how restructuring your thoughts can help you strive towards achieving better relationships.

Relationships are a hugely important part of our lives and whatever we can do to improve them is a good thing for everyone involved.

What is attachment theory?

Let’s do a quick overview of what attachment theory is. This will provide a good foundation for the rest of this article.

The esteemed psychologist John Bowlby first coined the term attachment theory in the late 60’s. Bowlby studied early childhood conditioning extensively and what he found was very interesting.

His research showed that when a very young child has a strong attachment to a caregiver, it provides the child with a sense of security and foundation. On the other hand when there isn’t a secure attachment, the child will expend a lot more developmental energy looking for security and stability.

The child without the secure attachment tends to become more fearful, timid and slow to explore new situations or their environment.

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When a strong attachment is developed in a child, he or she will be inclined to be more adventurous and seek out new experiences because they feel more secure. They know that whoever is watching out for them will be there if needed.

Bowlby’s colleague, Mary Ainsworth, took the theory further. She did extensive studies around infant-parent separations and provided a more formal framework for the differing attachment styles.

How attachment develops

Simply put, attachment is an emotional bond with another person. Attachment doesn’t have to go both ways, it can be one person feeling attached to another without it being reciprocated. Most of the time, it works between two people to one degree or another.

Attachment begins at a very young age. Over the history of time, when children were able to maintain a closer proximity to a caregiver that provided for them, a strong attachment was formed.

The initial thought was that the ability to provide food or nourishment to a child was the primary driver of a strong attachment.

It was then discovered that the primary drivers of attachment proved to be the parent/caregivers responsiveness to the child as well as the ability to nurture that child in a variety of ways. Things such as support, care, sustenance, and protection are all components of nurturing a child.

In essence a child forms a strong attachment when they feel that their caregiver is accessible and attentive and there if they need them; that the parent/caregiver will be there for them. If the child does not feel that the caregiver is there to help them when needed, they experience anxiety.

Different types of attachments

In children, 4 types of attachment styles have been identified. They are as follows:

  • Secure attachment – This is primarily marked by discomfort or distress when separated from caregivers and joy and security when the caregiver is back around the child. Even though the child initially feels agitated when the caregiver is no longer around, they feel confident they will return. The return of the parent or caregiver is met with positive emotions, the child prefers parents to strangers.
  • Ambivalent attachment – These children become very distressed when the parent or caregiver leaves. They feel they can’t rely on their caregiver for support when the need arises. Even though a child with ambivalent attachment may be agitated or confused when reunited with a parent or caregiver, they will cling to them.
  • Avoidant attachment – These kids typically avoid parents or caregivers. When they have a choice of being with the parent or not, they don’t seem to care one way or the other. Research has shown that this may be the result of neglectful caregivers.
  • Disorganized attachment – These children display a mix of disoriented behavior towards their caregiver. They may want them sometimes and other times they don’t. This is sometimes thought to be linked to inconsistent behavior from the parent or caregiver.

What attachments mean to adults

So the big question is how does this affect us in adulthood? Intuitively it makes sense that as a child, if we have someone who will be there when we need them, we feel secure. And on the other end of the spectrum, if we aren’t sure someone’s going to provide what we need when we need it, we may become more anxious and fearful.

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As an adult, we tend to wind up in one of three primary attachment types based on our childhood experiences. These are secure, avoidant, and anxious. Technically, there is a fourth one, anxious-avoidant, but it is quite a bit less common. They are described as follows:

  • Secure – When you have a secure attachment, you are comfortable displaying interest and affection towards another person but you’re also fine being alone and independent. Secure types are less apt to obsess over a relationship gone sour and handle being rejected easier. Secure types also tend to be better than other types with not starting relationships with people that might not be the best partners. They cut off the relationship quicker when they see things in a potential partner they don’t like. Secure attachment people make up the majority of the attachment types.
  • Anxious – Folks who have an anxious attachment style typically need a lot of reassurance from their partners. They have a much harder time being on their own and single than the other styles and fall into bad relationships more often. The anxious style represent about 20% of the population. It’s been shown that if anxious attachment styles learn how to communicate their needs better and learn to date secure partners, they can move towards the secure attachment style.
  • Avoidant – Avoidant attachment style represents approximately 25% of the population as adults. Avoidants many times have the hardest time in a relationship because they have a difficult time finding satisfaction. In general, they are uncomfortable with close relationships and intimacy and are quite independent. They are the lone wolf type person.
  • Anxious-avoidant – The anxious-avoidant style is relatively rare. It is composed of conflicting styles – they want to be close but at the same time push people away. They do things that push the people they are closest to away. Many times there can be a higher risk of depression or other mental health issues.

Here’s where it gets really interesting:

Move towards secure attachment

The good news is that it is possible to move from one style to another. Specifically, it is possible to move towards a more secure attachment style.

Now as you might imagine, this is not an easy or a quick process. Like any type of big change where you are attempting to alter such a deeply ingrained mindset, it takes a strong will to accomplish.

The first step is developing an awareness of your attachment style. The next step is to have the desire and drive to move your attachment style towards the more secure style.

If someone with an anxious or avoidant style has a long term relationship with a secure type, the anxious or avoidant person can slowly get brought up more towards a secure style.

The opposite is also true, they could bring the secure person more towards their attachment style. Therefore, you have to be conscious of your type and if you want to move more towards secure, it takes persistence.

Therapy is an option as well. Anxious types many times need to work on their self-esteem, avoidants on their connection specifically and compassion.

How to restructure your thoughts

Ready for the way to do it? Here we go:

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For the Avoidant Style

As with any type of change on such a deep level, the first step is awareness. Realize you have an avoidant style and be aware of it as you have interactions with your partner(s).

Try to work towards a place of mutual support and giving/taking. Try to lessen your need for complete self-reliance. Allow your partner to do some things that make you a little uncomfortable that you would normally do yourself.

Don’t always focus on the imperfections of your partner. We all have them, remind yourself of that.

Make yourself a list of the qualities that your partner has that you are thankful for.

Look for a secure style partner if at all possible, they would be good for you to be with.

If you have a tendency to end relationships before they go too far, be aware of that and let it develop further.

Get into the habit of accepting and even instigating physical touch. Tell yourself that it’s good for you to have some intimacy. Intimacy can help you feel safe and secure.

And over time you can realize that it’s okay to rely on other people.

For the Anxious Style

For the anxious style, the #1 thing to work on is learning to communicate needs better. This is a huge issue for the anxious style.

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First and foremost if you communicate your needs more clearly, you will have less anxiety, that’s already a big win. This will also allow you to better assess if a potential partner is good for you.

Try to bring your feelings more to the surface and most importantly, share them with your partner. Remember that secure attachments typically communicate pretty well, this is what you are working towards.

For the Anxious-Avoidant Style

The anxious-avoidant is a very small percentage of the attachment styles. Since this type tends to be anxious in the relationship AND more or less a loner, the key here is working hard to be very self-aware of your actions.

Use the parts of striving towards secure attachment from the anxious tips and the avoidant restructuring of your thoughts to consciously work towards being more secure.

When you find yourself pushing someone away, ask why. If you feel worried that your partner is going to leave you, again, ask yourself where this is coming from. Have they shown you any reason to believe this? Many times there is no real evidence. In that case, allow yourself to calm down and try not to obsess over it.

For the Secure Style

Since the goal is to move towards a more secure attachment style, there isn’t much needed here as you might imagine.

Something to be aware of is being in a relationship just because it’s “okay”. Don’t stay if it’s not a good place for you and your partner. If your partner is of an anxious or avoidant attachment style, stay mindful to not start developing characteristics of those styles.

Strive towards Secure Attachment

As we wrap things up, you’ve probably developed a good idea of the benefits of secure attachment. If you don’t currently have a secure attachment style, here are some benefits of restructuring your thoughts more towards this style:

  • Positive self esteem and self image
  • Close and well adjusted relationships
  • Sense of security in self and the world
  • Ability to be independent as well as in relationships
  • Optimistic outlook on life and yourself
  • Strong coping skills and strategies for relationships and life
  • Trust in self and others
  • Close, intimate relationships
  • Strong determination and problem solving skills

If you are an anxious or avoidant style or the combination of anxious-avoidant, it is possible to move towards a secure attachment style.

It takes self-awareness, patience and a strong desire to get close to being secure but it can be done. You will find that putting the effort into it will provide you with more open, honest and satisfying relationships.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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