Let's face it – parenting can be hard and, these days, it comes with a host of unique challenges in the modern world. Most of us want to be good parents and for our children to be safe, happy and healthy. It's also normal to want our kids to avoid some of the struggles that we ourselves endured.
But what happens if we cross the line from being an involved and supportive parent to worrying excessively, and being overly controlling and protective?
Qualified CBT therapist Navit Schechter looks at the dangers of helicopter parenting, and offers expert tips on how to develop a relaxed and supportive parenting style, so you can raise happy, independent kids:
What is helicopter parenting?
Otherwise known as neurotic parenting or over-parenting, the term helicopter parenting was first coined in 1990. It's used to describe parents who are extreme in their focus, always hovering around their children and worrying about their safety, as well as their physical and mental wellbeing.
Helicopter parents tend to be hands-on and overprotective, often trying to shield their children from the trials of life, rather than encouraging independence. Helicopter parenting traits often include:
- Catching your 18-month-old every time he stumbles, to prevent him from getting hurt.
- Getting involved in your 4-year-old's friendship squabbles, to avoid a fall out.
- Excessively using hand gel to avoid germs.
- Selecting your 6-year-old's interests and activities.
- Stopping your 10-year-old from stretching their tree-climbing skills.
- Completing your 13-year-old's homework when they won't do it themselves.
The list is endless. Ultimately, none of us want our children to hurt themselves, become ill, feel left out or struggle at school. But what happens when we step in too soon and try to solve their problems for them, in an attempt to make them happy, or avoid feelings of pain, frustration, boredom or disappointment?
Why have we become neurotic parents?
Parents usually love their children intensely and have their best interests at heart. No one sets out to over-parent, but it's becoming increasingly common. There are likely to be a number of reasons for this:
- Fear – of injury, harm or kidnapping.
- Concern that your child may not be socially or academically successful in life.
- Worry that by not meeting each and every one of their needs, they will be psychologically damaged in the future.
- Excessively high self-expectations of what it means to be a good parent.
- Pressures from social media or worries about what other parents expect from us.
- Long working hours away from home, which lead to feelings of guilt and a desire to make amends.
- Attempts to redress our own parents' shortcomings and give our children what we didn't receive ourselves.
And there are more reasons still: many people are now choosing to have children later in life, perhaps even giving up an established career to have them. If you're used to success in other areas of life, this same determination may then be applied to the role of being a parent.
Others may have struggled to conceive, and the need to go above and beyond to protect their child is the result of years of yearning.
Add to this living in a fast-paced, increasingly competitive and psychologically taxing world, often juggling work and childcare responsibilities, and it's easy for our core values to be forgotten and priorities to get out of balance.
The dangers of neurotic parenting
The beliefs we develop about ourselves, others and the world are formed as a result of our early experiences. Having a hands-on parent can be advantageous in the short-term, to smooth the trials and tribulations of life. However, being too hands-on can become problematic in the long-term:
• The importance of failure
When we're allowed the opportunity to experience pain, social rejection, frustration, boredom, disappointment and fear, we learn to tolerate these difficult experiences and emotions.
• Developing problem-solving skills
When we're given the chance to push ourselves and navigate difficulties, we have the opportunity to practise problem solving, as well as building confidence and creativity. Like a muscle, the area of the brain that controls these tasks needs to be exercised in order to grow. If children aren't given these opportunities, how will they learn they are competent and capable, or that it's OK to fail and try again?
• Developing decision-making skills
Even when motivated by love, helicopter parents can inadvertently give the implicit message, 'You can't do this without me', creating inactive children who find it difficult to make decisions, trust themselves, know what makes them happy or deal with conflicts on their own. In time, this can lead to greater problems.
A recent study, looking at the impact of helicopter parents on their college-age children's functioning, found those with helicopter parents had a higher chance of experiencing life dissatisfaction, depression and anxiety (Schiffrin and Liss, 2013), as they hadn't had the chance to learn their own self-regulation skills.
Being an overly involved parent also comes with a host of negative consequences for the parent, too – it can lead to an endless cycle of worry, guilt, depression and burn-out.
How to relax your parenting style
If any of this sounds familiar, and you suspect you might have a tendency towards helicopter parenting, don't worry. Change is possible if you want it, and it's never too late for you or your child. Take a step back and adopt a more relaxed, supportive parenting style by following these simple (although not always easy) steps:
✔️ Pay attention to your parenting behaviours
First, pay attention to how you interact with your child throughout the day. Make a note of anything you're doing for them that they could be doing for themselves. Making a list will help you see where you're stepping in before you need to.
✔️ Encourage independence
Once you've identified where you're over-parenting, encourage independence in your child by letting them try tasks by themselves, before jumping in to help. Start with everyday tasks that your children are capable (or almost capable) of doing by themselves, such as getting dressed, making a packed lunch, or putting away laundry.
Over time, try to encourage your child to do more for themselves and to step outside their comfort zone. Rather than giving the message, 'Others will do the work for me,' this teaches, 'I can do this by myself'.
If you find your child becomes annoyed or frustrated during this process, remember, these uncomfortable feelings are part of what we need to go through, to develop our confidence and independence. You can support your children by recognising these feelings, rather than trying to take them away.
✔️ Let your child learn from their own experiences
It's OK to let your child fail. Rather than intervening, in an attempt to protect your child from being hurt or feeling bad, think about what you want your child to learn from their experiences.
Focus on teaching them the skills they need to succeed and keep themselves safe from danger. Then let them make their own decisions and do things their way; they will experience both successes and failures, and learn from their own mistakes.
✔️ Practise letting go
Let your children play together, without adult supervision or control. They will learn firsthand how to negotiate, cooperate and empathise – and will soon discover what happens if they don't.
✔️ Discuss problems while giving your child autonomy
There will always be some problems your child won't be able to solve themselves, for example, if they are being bullied at school. However, for less serious problems, rather than always offering solutions, ask, 'What do you think you could do?' Then offer a listening ear while they work through it. This approach gives them the implicit message, 'I can do this on my own', which will in turn help them cope in future crises. They will develop more confidence in themselves, while also knowing someone's there for them when life gets hard.
✔️ Develop a more realistic perspective
If we allow our negative thoughts to run away with themselves, we can often get caught up in negative cycles of thinking and feeling. It's helpful to make a note of your thoughts at times when you're feeling particularly distressed. This will help you identify any biased thoughts you might be having, for example, 'I'm a bad mum,' leading to feelings of guilt, low mood or anxiety. Writing these down can help give you some distance and perspective.
You can then ask yourself:
- Are my thoughts realistic?
- Are they based on the facts of the situation?
- Am I judging myself harshly, or by the same standards I'd judge my friends?
- Are my expectations fair?
- Are there any positives in myself or the situation that I'm overlooking?
If you can develop a more balanced and realistic perspective, this will help you feel better and have a more positive outlook.
If your patterns of negative thinking are more deeply rooted, you may benefit from a short course of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). This will help you understand how your beliefs developed; how they are impacting on you and your relationships; and will teach you how to think more realistically.
✔️ Manage your parenting worry
It's natural to want to protect your children and keep them safe from harm. However, if you find yourself feeling constantly anxious, it may be that you're worrying excessively. There are many uncertainties inherent in bringing up a child and, while you can't control everything your child experiences or does, you can control how you respond to them.
Many people have the mistaken belief that worrying shows we care, or that it will help us prepare for (or even prevent) bad events. This is not the case. Worrying excessively – about your children or, indeed, in other areas of your life – will simply cause excessive anxiety and tension. Learning to manage your worry will help you feel calmer and more relaxed.
Are you worrying about a current problem, or a hypothetical future problem? If it's a current problem, find a solution and act on it.
Hypothetical future worries cannot be problem-solved or fixed, as they are imaginings of what might happen in the future. It's important to recognise there's nothing you can do about these worries – and then let them go. Focus instead on the present; on the things you can control. If you find it hard to dismiss hypothetical worries, again, a short course of CBT may help.
✔️ Focus on your relationship with your child
Rather than focusing on the things you can't control, focus on building a strong, trusting relationship with your child. Focus on the person they are and the qualities they possess. This can help to create a more positive cycle.
The more you focus on your child's inherent skills and qualities, the more you will trust that they are a capable person. When children feel securely attached, they are happy to explore and take risks appropriately, knowing they have a safe base to return to. Listen to your child and their point of view; let them struggle; let them be independent, and see their confidence grow. As a result, not only will you feel more confident in their ability, but you'll both feel calmer and better able to cope with day-to-day life as a result.
✔️ Let them make it on their own
You can't always protect your children from the disappointments and challenges of life. As much as you might be able to attempt this when they're young, it's an impossible task as they grow older. What's more, being overly protective when they're young robs them of the opportunities to learn how to cope by themselves when you're not there.
What you can do is be there for them when they need you, and show them love, support, strength and encouragement. They will learn they can make it on their own and, when they no longer need you around, you'll also know they can make it on their own, too.
💟 Navit Schechter is a qualified CBT Therapist with over 10 years experience working with people with common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Navit has a private practice in Cornwall and offers Skype appointments for those who live further afield. For more information visit cbttherapyworks.com or contact Navit on info@CBTtherapyworks.com.
Last updated: 16-01-2020
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