‘Helicopter Parenting’ and Failure-to-Launch Kids

The term “helicopter parent” became known in 1990, coined by Jim Fay, parenting and educational consultant, and Foster W. Cline, MD, a psychiatrist, in the book Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility. It brings with it images of “smother love” – excessive attention to a child’s actions, making decisions for the developing young person rather than with them, hovering, keeping them from falling (literally or symbolically), speaking for them, and intervening on their behalf instead of modeling independence. Born of fear and perfectionism, this type of parenting often evolves from living vicariously through a child rather than allowing them to be their own person, distinct from the parent.

Perfect Parenting: Helping or Hurting?

There’s a story of a man who saw a butterfly struggling to emerge from a chrysalis that was beginning to crack open. He feared that the creature would not be able to come out on its own, so he reached down and “helped” it come forth. What he didn’t know was that the butterfly has a swollen body and tiny wings at first and that for the fluid to move from the body to the wings, pressure against the chrysalis needs to be exerted. By lending a hand, even with good intention, the man prevented the natural process from playing out correctly, and the butterfly limped around for a bit and then died. This analogy illustrates how helicopter parents can unwittingly “cripple’” their children. Outcomes for a child from this kind of parenting may include poor decision-making skills, entitlement, fear of taking chances, low frustration threshold, emotional dis-regulation, codependent relationship patterns, substance abuse, inability to hold a job or a living situation, lack of responsibility, failure to launch, and learned helplessness.

The Effects of “Helicopter” Parenting Behaviors

According to research published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, Holly Schiffrin, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Mary Washington investigated the impact of parenting behavior on college students’ psychological well-being. “Helicopter parenting behaviors were related to higher levels of depression and decreased satisfaction with life. In addition, these behaviors were associated with lower levels of perceived autonomy, competence, and relatedness,” the authors wrote. In such situations, low motivation and low desire to live independently is common. An example is a 26-year-old man diagnosed with depression and anxiety. He and his family are immigrants who came to the United States when he was a pre-teen. Both parents are college-educated professionals. Although he took classes and learned to speak English fluently, he felt rejected by his peers and had few friends growing up. He wasn’t expected to take on responsibility at home, except for school work. He graduated from high school and enrolled in college, but dropped out after one semester due to social and performance anxiety. He’s held one part-time job, but quit when he felt overwhelmed by the expectations. His days are spent playing video games with online friends (he has no face-to-face friends), attending weekly outpatient psychotherapy, going to the gym a few times a week when he feels motivated to do so, and occasionally helping his parents around the house. There’s still no expectation from his parents that he go back to school, become gainfully employed, or live on his own. When discussing the situation, he acknowledges that he has no desire to change his lifestyle. His parents feel he’s too fragile to take on an adult role. This butterfly’s wings are clipped. The goal in therapy is for him to regrow them. It’s a work in progress and he’s regularly encouraged to bump up against the symbolic chrysalis.

Grounded Parenting for Soaring Offspring

Follow these tips for grounded, well-balanced parenting and independent, confident, well-rounded kids:

  • See your child as an entity unto him or herself and not an extension of you.
  • Allow him or her to literally and metaphorically fall and skin their knees.
  • Be supportive, but not a crutch. The training wheels must come off the bike eventually.
  • Let learning come from natural consequences. When your child makes choices, there’s always an outcome.
  • Give “assignments” for them to accomplish early on, such as chores and household tasks that are age-appropriate. Even if they don’t complete the goal as you would do it, offer encouragement.
  • Reinforce the belief that they’re capable and competent and can be independent.
  • Model healthy relationships and decision-making in your own life. Children live what they learn.
  • Take pleasure in your children’s accomplishments but not ownership of them.
  • Supervise but don’t control or dominate. Discipline and freedom go hand in hand. Leave plenty of breathing space.
  • Have reasonable expectations for yourself and them. Parenting is like a Goldilock’s experiment: sometimes too much, sometimes not enough, and sometimes just right.
  • Your history is not your destiny. You need not parent the way your parents did, unless you feel it was beneficial. Break dysfunctional patterns if there’s a history of addiction or abuse in your home.
  • Parenting classes such as Tough Love and Because I Love You (BILY) are useful resources.

Allow yourself to “come in for a landing” so you can refuel and your children can soar.

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