‘Helicopter’ Parents and the Dangers of Rescuing
When teenagers make mistakes, we say, “I hope you learned your lesson,” and expect that the same mistake won’t be made again. But how do we learn life’s lessons? For most of us, experience is the best teacher.
But not every adolescent gets the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Those who have “helicopter” parents may be shielded from important lessons well into adulthood.
Where’s the Harm?
Helicopter parents are so named because they hover over their children, focusing so intently on protecting their child from harm, disappointment and unhappiness that they keep them from experiencing the consequences of their actions.
Lost Learning Opportunities. A common example of helicopter parenting is when a teenager gets kicked off a sports team and the parent intervenes to “fix” it. The parent feels the consequence is unfair, or believes their child couldn’t have done anything wrong, despite the fact that the teen hasn’t been showing up to practice or has been breaking rules, so they work to get their teen put back on the team. As a result, the teen doesn’t learn anything, doesn’t change their behavior and continues to struggle to keep their place on the team.
“Teens learn best from experience,” said Mike Gurr, MS, MA, LPC, the clinical director at Copper Canyon Academy, a therapeutic boarding school for girls in Arizona. “When parents shield teens from the natural consequences of their actions, they deprive them of valuable learning opportunities.”
Lack of Confidence.When parents rescue their teens from challenges, they send an underlying message that their child is fragile, lacking in skills and know-how, and incapable of overcoming obstacles that other teens are able to surmount. Because the child believes they’ll never be able to accomplish their goals, they eventually stop trying.
Helicopter parenting also sends the message to teens that perfection is expected, and that mistakes and failures are unacceptable. But mistakes and failures are part of life, and parents don’t want their child to be so stifled by fear that they are afraid to try. And though parents don’t necessarily want to raise insensitive teens, it’s difficult to grow up feeling vulnerable to every negative comment and difficult situation.
Codependency At a time when teens should be growing in confidence, skills and independence, they end up being dependent on their parents. The parent then begins to depend on the neediness of their child, resulting in a codependent relationship where neither parent nor child can survive without the other.
Since the teen expects to be rescued, they never become self-reliant but become skilled at manipulating their parents to do even more for them. It is also common for teens to act out and rebel in an effort to escape their parents’ persistent over-involvement.
Struggles in Adulthood When overprotected teens grow into adults, the problems become even more pronounced. They may struggle to take care of themselves, move out, and find a job, spouse and a place to live. When dating, they may expect their partner to take care of them, and may even be attracted to people who are controlling and abusive. They don’t know how to do things for themselves, adopting a victim mentality and lacking the ability to cope with the usual challenges life brings.
Are You a Helicopter Parent?
Parents may not be able to see their overprotective ways because they believe they are truly doing what’s best for their child. And by the time a child reaches adolescence, this parenting style may be deeply ingrained.
“The helicopter parenting style is one of the most difficult to change because it’s hard for parents to see the harm in their approach,” said Gurr. “They want life to be fair for their child and will do whatever it takes to make things ‘right.’”
But isn’t a parent’s job to protect their child from harm?
It depends on the type of harm, said Gurr. Helicopter parents protect their kids from every type of harm, great or small, whether emotional, psychological, social, academic or physical. Although there are certainly times when parents should intervene, a good test is for parents to ask themselves, “Is my child in physical danger?” Parents may also want to get involved if there is potential for severe emotional harm.
But these situations are generally rare. “Most of the time, parents rescue their child when they don’t really need to,” said Gurr. “Teens may stumble along the way, but that’s how they learn.”
Learning to Let Go
Adolescents are growing and learning at a remarkable pace. As they begin to come into their own, they rely less on their parents and more on themselves. This is the natural process of becoming an adult – a process that is necessary for the child’s happiness and well-being.
When things don’t go perfectly, a parent’s instinct may be to swoop in and fix it. After all, when your child suffers, so do you. But the hardest thing to do – nothing but listen and offer support – is often the best thing to do.
There is risk in everything we do, but encouraging a child to make decisions and explore new things in spite of those risks will give them the freedom to grow into an independent adult. While they may experience rejection, jealousy, failure and disappointment, they may also experience the joy and confidence that come with honest achievement.
If you’re a helicopter parent and your teenager is struggling to transition into young adulthood, there are programs that can help. Through workshops and family therapy, Copper Canyon Academy works to educate families about the different parenting styles and parenting roles, and teaches parents how to avoid rescuing and codependency.
At the same time, the therapists, teachers and staff at the academy teach adolescents problem-solving and coping skills, personal responsibility and more effective forms of communication. The program at Copper Canyon Academy is highly structured. Students live by clear and consistently applied rules and consequences which parents can use as a model in their own homes.
As difficult as it is to accept, your teenager isn’t a child anymore. Letting go doesn’t mean losing your child, loving your child less or weakening the bond you’ve nurtured for years. It is merely allowing your relationship to transform into something new – something that will make you closer in the long run.