Putting an End to Helicopter Parenting

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Not so long ago, life was simpler and children were sent out to play until the street lights came on. There were no trophies given to every member of the soccer team and no “room moms” for each middle school homeroom. Teenagers went to the mall and didn’t come home until dinner.

Then, a whole new generation of parents came of age, and the pendulum began to swing the other way. As technology made it easier to keep in touch, parents started to get more involved in their children’s social and school lives, and never loosened the reins when their kids reached young adulthood. Constant involvement somehow became a way to express love, and now we’ve become a society in which it’s not uncommon for college students to e-mail papers to their moms and dads for proofreading or to ask them to call a professor to negotiate a grade.

There’s a fine line between offering support and advice and being overly involved in your young adult’s life. When you cross the line, you’re doing more harm than just being annoying. You’re holding your teen back from easing into the independence adulthood affords.

Learn to Let Go
So how do you know if you’ve become a “helicopter parent” to your high schooler? Well, do you often hover, ready to swoop down and rescue your teen at the first sign of trouble in school or problem at his or her part-time job? Do you still constantly remind your child not forget important permission slips or appointments?

Or, do you allow your teen to navigate some of these things on his or her own … and then deal with the consequences? When was the last time you let your teen struggle to learn from a mis-step?

It’s important to give children enough space to learn to make good choices on their own — even at a young age. There is value in letting a young adult take on some responsibility and earn your trust by making sound decisions and maturely dealing with the consequences.

In my experience working with teenagers in a clinical setting, I’ve known parents who micromanage. Technology makes it easy to check in with a text or a quick phone call. Recent studies indicate college students communicate on average at least 13 times a week with their parents. This is a stark contrast to previous generations that viewed the high school years as the jumping off point toward independence, and parent contact was limited to weekly phone calls and a once-a-semester campus visit.

In working with students, I’ve seen the lasting effects of helicopter parenting. Moms and dads who were involved in every aspect of their high schoolers’ lives don’t let go easily, and their teens are ill-equipped to navigate the adult world independently.

Be a Listener, Not a Rescuer
Great communication is vital to a healthy family dynamic, but some trust and freedom goes a long way toward letting your teen find his or her way in the world. And as your child matures, your work as a parent becomes a lot easier.

Set boundaries together that make you both feel comfortable with how you’ll communicate. Ask your teen what sounds reasonable about touching base when he or she is away from home — how often you’ll get a text, call, or e-mail. (And keep in mind that sometimes “no news is good news” when he or she does connect but doesn’t really want to talk.)

Remember: You are there to be an advocate, not a savior. Ask your child how he or she would like to “use” you when help is needed. And when you’re tempted to step in and insert yourself into a situation, stop and evaluate if you truly are needed. Many times you’ll find you’re just out to manage your own anxiety.

With most kids it’s a safe bet to trust in the quality of your parenting and have faith you have instilled the values and expectations necessary for your teen to develop into an independent, responsible adult.

Making independent decisions and dealing with the outcome are essential parts of maturing. It can be hard for parents to accept, but older teens really are young adults, and, therefore, entitled to their own private lives. They need the time and space to make mistakes, and to learn when to ask for your help.

While it can be terrifying to let go bit by bit, this process is a gift to your child. This is how your teen learns about who he or she is and wants to be in the world.

Melinda Harper, Ph.D., teaches psychology at Queens University of Charlotte. Her private practice at Charlotte Psychotherapy & Consultation Group focuses on children and adolescents.

What Would You Do?
When your teenager comes home from school visibly upset, will you be a “helicopter parent” and rush in to ask, “Oh honey, how can we fix it?” If you do, you’re reinforcing a dynamic of learned helplessness, allowing your child to remain overly dependent on you and not be able to think for himself or herself. This is great if you’re living in a TV sitcom.

A healthier way to respond — for everyone involved — is to seize the opportunity to help your teen become a more competent and thoughtful decision-maker. Acknowledge that he or she is upset, and ask, “What do you think should happen next?” Share that you trust your teen’s judgment and ability to come up with a creative solution.

And as your teen talks, listen for clues that he or she is thinking through the potential consequences for the proposed actions. Remember, though, to allow your teen to lead the conversation.