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What’s the best way to raise a child?

The answer to this age-old question is hotly debated — and it’s likely you know someone who thinks their way is the best.

But when you bring home that tiny new baby it can certainly feel like your primary purpose is to shelter them from any harm — real or perceived — that may come their way.

This need to keep your child safe and happy may be part of the reason one often-mocked parenting style remains prevalent in the United States: helicopter parenting.

While in some ways the characteristics of this style might seem like one of the best ways to raise happy, successful children, being a helicopter parent can sometimes backfire and do more harm than good.

Every parent wants their children to be happy and do well for themselves. So when given the opportunity, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to make their kid’s life easier?

This is instinctual behavior, but some parents take “being supportive” to another level and hover over their children like a helicopter — hence the birth of the term.

The best way to describe helicopter parenting (also called cosseting) is “hyper-involvement in a child’s life.”

It’s the opposite of free-range parenting where independence and thinking for oneself are encouraged, but closely related to lawnmower parenting where a parent “mows down” — so to speak — any problem a child might face so they never feel hurt, pain, or disappointment.

While helicopter parenting has become widely discussed in recent years, it is by no means a new term. The metaphor was actually first used in a 1969 book titled “Between Parent and Teenager” written by Dr. Haim Ginott.

Whether it’s standing over a teenager’s shoulder as they do their homework, or shadowing a younger child each time they ride their bike, helicopter parenting comes in many forms.

Some people think it only affects teenagers and college students, but it can start at a much earlier age and continue into adulthood. Here’s a look at what helicopter parenting looks like at different stages in life.

Toddler

  • trying to prevent every minor fall or avoiding age-appropriate risks
  • never allowing the child to play alone
  • constantly asking the preschool teacher for progress reports
  • not encouraging developmentally appropriate independence

Elementary school

  • speaking with school administrators to make sure the child has a certain teacher because they are perceived as the best
  • choosing a child’s friends for them
  • enrolling them in activities without their input
  • completing homework and school projects for your child
  • refusing to let the child solve problems on their own

Teen years and beyond

  • not allowing your child to make age-appropriate choices
  • becoming overly involved in their academic work and extracurricular activities to shield them from failure or disappointment
  • contacting their college professor about poor grades
  • intervening in disagreements with their friends, co-workers, or employer

Helicopter parenting has various causes, and sometimes, there are deep-seated issues at the root of this style. Knowing this can help you understand why someone (or yourself) has a strong urge to be over-involved in their child’s life. Possible causes include:

Fears about their future

Some parents strongly believe that what their child does today has a huge impact on their future, and helicoptering is seen as a way to prevent struggles later in their life.

A child getting a low grade, getting cut from a sports team, or not getting into the college of their choice can spark fears of uncertainty about their future.

Anxiety

Some parents become anxious and fall apart emotionally when they see their child hurt or disappointed, so they’ll do everything in their power to prevent this from happening.

But what they may not realize is that hurt and disappointment are a part of life and help a child grow and become more resilient. (Just think about how often we, as adults, acknowledge that a tough situation made us stronger.)

Looking for a sense of purpose

Helicopter parenting can also arise when a parent’s identity becomes wrapped up in their child’s accomplishments. Their child’s success makes them feel like a better parent.

Overcompensation

Maybe the helicopter parent didn’t feel loved or protected by their own parent and swore that their children would never feel this way. This is a completely normal and even admirable feeling. But while this might end a cycle of neglect, some parents go overboard and give their child more than the usual attention.

Peer pressure

Peer pressure isn’t just a childhood problem — it also affects adults. So parents who surround themselves with helicopter parents might feel pressure to mimic this style of parenting, for fear that others will think they’re not as good of a parent if they don’t.

The million dollar question: Is helicopter parenting beneficial?

To some degree, it may be, at least for the parent.

It’s a controversial modern parenting style, but there’s actually research suggesting that parents who are heavily involved in the lives of their children enjoy greater happiness and meaning in their lives.

Yet, the benefit of helicopter parenting might not extend to children.

While some parents hover to give their child an advantage, other research suggests that constant involvement may cause some children to have a harder time in school and beyond.

Although some parents see helicopter parenting as a good thing, it can backfire and cause a child to develop low self-confidence or low self-esteem.

That’s because as a child becomes older they may doubt their own abilities since they’ve never had to figure out anything on their own. They might feel that their parents don’t trust them to make their own decisions, and even start to question whether they’re equipped to manage their own life.

Feelings of low self-confidence and low self-esteem can become so bad that they lead to other problems, like anxiety and depression. And these feelings don’t simply go away just because a child becomes older.

It’s difficult to conduct research since the phrase “helicopter parenting” isn’t an official medical or psychological term — an it is typically used in a derogatory way.

However, one 2014 study evaluating the impact of this style on college students found that students raised by so-called helicopter parents were more likely to be on medication for anxiety and depression. The study was limited, though, as it dealt with a fairly narrow population in Turkey that was mostly female.

There’s also the risk of a child developing entitlement issues where they believe they deserve certain privileges, usually as a result of always getting what they want. They grow up believing the world will bend over backward for them, which can result in a rude awakening later on.

Some children act out or become hostile when they feel their parents are trying to have too much control over their life. Others grow up with poor coping skills. Because they didn’t learn how to deal with failure or disappointment during elementary, high school, or college, they may lack conflict resolution skills as well.

Loosening the reins can be difficult, but this doesn’t make you any less of a loving, involved parent. You can show your child that you’re always there without solving all of their problems for them.

Here’s how to break free and encourage independence from your child:

  • Rather than focus on the present, think about the possible long-term effects of helicopter parenting. Ask yourself, do I want my child to always rely on me to fix things, or do I want them to develop life skills?
  • If your children are old enough to do something for themselves, let them and fight the urge to intervene. This can include things as small as tying their shoes, cleaning their room, or picking out their clothes.
  • Let children make age-appropriate decisions for themselves. Allow an elementary child to choose their preferred extracurricular activity or hobbies, and let older children choose what classes to take.
  • After your child has a disagreement with a friend, co-worker, or boss, don’t get in the middle or try to fix it. Teach them skills to resolve the conflict on their own.
  • Allow your child to fail. We know this is hard. But not making a team or getting into the college of their choice teaches them how to cope with disappointment.
  • Teach them life skills such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, face-to-face interaction, and how to talk with their teachers.

With any parenting style, it’s important to consider how it’ll affect your child now and in the future.

Of course, every parent at some point has done a little extra to make their child’s life easier. The problem is when helicopter parenting becomes a regular thing and hinders healthy development.

If you’re “helicopter parenting,” you may not be aware of it, and there’s no doubt you want what’s best for your child. So think about the person or the adult you want them to become, and then base your parenting style around this outcome. You may find that stepping back eases a burden — on your shoulders, as well as on theirs.