Are you a Helicopter Parent?

 This is an archives post from September 2013. Have you heard of helicopter parenting? This week we define the term, and discuss some of the impacts on youth development related to helicopter parenting.

Helicopter parent [hel-i-kop-ter pair-uhnt].noun. One who hovers over and swoops in at the slightest sign of their child’s discomfort, regardless of the age and capability of said child. One who encourages their child to run for cover upon threat or experience of distress, immediately stepping in to prevent or alleviate that stress.

Not too many of us set out with the intention of becoming helicopter parents. In fact, the line between good parenting and over involvement can be difficult to find. So how do you know if you are a helicopter parent? One fun way to assess your helicopter tendencies is to take this quiz.

helicopter parent

The central difference between helicopter and non-helicopter parenting is the accurate assessment of the level of risk facing your teen. Parents are, indeed, correct that underestimating a risk can have lasting consequences. Kelly Clarkson’s musical hit put the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” on everyone’s lips, but that statement is not necessarily true. When my grandfather was a boy, he contracted rheumatic fever. After months of illness, he recovered but he lived for the remainder of his life with a permanently enlarged and weakened heart. Overestimating risk can be equally dangerous for children’s long term well being. Just as a reasonable level of exposure to germs is thought to be essential for building a healthy immune system, experiences of adversity and failure in childhood and adolescence are vital for developing resiliency, self-reliance and healthy coping skills. It is important that parents allow their young persons to “get dirty” and work through appropriate challenges themselves.

Does this mean you should never help your teen? Of course not!  Here are three questions to ask yourself as you contemplate the level of risk a particular situation presents for your teen.

  • Will the consequences be short term or long lasting?

There is no doubt that it is painful to watch your child get left out of the big seventh grade boy-girl party, be the only one of her friends not to make the select soccer team or receive an “F” in a class they do not like (and no wonder, you’re not crazy about that particular teacher either). Because  these setbacks are not likely to negatively affect the long term course of their lives, it is often best for parents to let circumstances take their natural course while offering support and encouragement from the sidelines. On the other hand, a child who is systematically isolated or harassed, who is humiliated by a coach or who repeatedly receives failing grades may be overwhelmed and out of their depth. These are contexts, which may have lasting consequences and a time for parents to actively intervene.

  • Is my teen more likely to achieve a “net gain” from having the opportunity to handle this situation on their own?

Learning comes in a variety of forms, including what to do in particular contexts and what not to do in others. Stepping in or taking over for our teen robs them of these learning opportunities as well as the sense of power, accomplishment and self-mastery they receive from success. My daughter, like many teens, had off and on challenges negotiating her social environment. When a family move forced a change from a large urban high school to a small, rural district, she truly felt like a fish out of water. She begged me to homeschool her and often mentions what she considered at the time to be a less than supportive response. Apparently I told her, “Some people go to school to learn academic information; you go to school to learn how to get along with people.” And, while it may have been true that she needed to work much harder on her social skills than on her academic knowledge, it was cold comfort for both of us at the time. However, today, at age 24, she will freely share that she is very, very grateful for those hard won lessons … and so are her employers, co-workers and friends.

  • Am I acting for my teen or for myself?

There is a lot of pressure involved with trying to be a good parent. Our natural desire to have our teens to reflect well upon ourselves sometimes leads us to go beyond the call of duty to assist them.. There are times, particularly during the normal course of the adolescent years, when parents are going to need to accept the fact that their children are going to go their own way,  make mistakes and occasionally do something that embarrasses parents. So, when your fifteen year old informs you that he is going to quit the top seeded state swim team and focus on his garage band, take a moment to reflect on the fact that he is not really likely to swim in the Olympics and his need to pursue a new interest might supersede your dreams of cheering poolside at the state meet. When your thirteen year old is caught dropping her 7-11 snack wrappers on the ground in the park, don’t intervene when she has to pick up trash in full view of the entire neighborhood for a week in recompense.

If you suspect that you are a helicopter parent, at least some of the time, don’t despair. You are in good company. BUT you can and should take steps to re-examine and alter your behavior. If you need help, get a little support from a family counselor. If you think you’re a helicopter parent, the teen years are the time to make your move from helicopter to well grounded parenting.


Article by Becky Mather

Becky is an Outreach Specialist for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Much of her work centers on parenting education and adolescent development. She and her husband are the parents of two young adults and a pre-adolescent. Becky is a Certified Family Life Educator.