Is Helicopter Parenting Holding Kids Back?

A recent article published by Slate brings attention to the possible negative impact of being too invested and involved in our children’s lives and success, described as “helicopter parenting.” Dr. Brooks discussed this in an earlier blog (when “Tiger Parenting” was the descriptor). The Slate authors highlight recent studies revealing increasing mental health problems among college students and observations that today’s students appear less confidence in their ability to navigate stressful situations independently of their parents. Mental health professionals have wondered if helicopter parenting may be negatively impacting young adult’s development by denying them the basic psychological need for autonomy and competence. Indeed, a recent 2013 investigation showing that college students with “hovering” parents report significantly higher levels of depression and less satisfaction in life.

So, how can parents maintain a healthy level of involvement and avoid “helicopter parenting”?

I would generally define “helicopter” parenting as consistently doing things for a child/teen that are at or below their developmental level. When we do things for a child that they are capable (or almost capable) of doing, we tacitly send the message, you can’t handle this. Instead of doing it for them, we should instead aim to encourage them and support them in carrying out skills that are just at the limit of their skills or capacities. In education they actually have a word for this support – scaffolding. In the classroom, when a child is learning a new skill, a teacher can provide scaffolding, or initial support by:

  • Modeling a task
  • Giving advice
  • Providing coaching

Then, these supports are gradually removed as the child/teen develops autonomous strategies. Scaffolding helps promote the child’s own independent use of skills and knowledge.

Because children/teens develop at different rates, it can be tricky to identify what is just at or beyond their developmental level. It’s usually pretty clear when a child is unsuccessful at a task and they require support. But, conversely, how do we know when we are doing too much and should provide less scaffolding? One helpful way to identity their development level is to imagine a child’s zone of proximal development – a term developed by psychologist Lev Vygotsky. This zone is the field between what a child can do by him/herself and what can be achieved with the support of a knowledgeable peer or instructor (the diagram to the right illustrates this!).

Ask yourself:

  • What is my child able to almost do for themselves?
  • What will my child/teen be expected to do independently 1-2 years from now?

For example, if your child will be in middle school in 2 years, they may be expected to keep track of their own homework assignments, to set up their own outings with peers, and to talk to teachers if they need extra help.

Many of those “2-years-from-now” skills are likely in your child’s zone of proximal development. So, using those as a guide, ask yourself:

  • What can I do to start helping my child practice those skills?
  • What can I hand over to them now?

Essentially, we are not doing our children any favors if we are doing things for them that they are capable of doing now or they would be capable of doing with some practice. Think of yourself as a “boss” or “coach” who provides feedback and support, but encourage them to take the steps to solve the problem. Instead of coming to the rescue when your 8th grader gets a poor grade, try asking them what they could do to handle it.

If they fail, that’s OK, even preferable really! That’s why it’s called the zone of proximal development – they haven’t quite mastered skills in that zone yet. When they’re trying to solve a problem on their own, it’s ok to ask them what support they need. And after, considering following-up to reflect on how things went, asking: What was the most challenging thing about that situationHow can they handle it differently next time?

By taking a “coaching” and not solving their problems for them, you are actually teaching your child/teen one of life’s most valuable skills – how to manage their own problems autonomously. This sends the message that you believe in their abilities and are confident that they can handle things. And, this ultimately sets your child up for more success in life and for a healthy long-term parent-child relationship.


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