As I sit down to write on “Helicopter Parenting, I find myself thinking about the labels that we place on parents’ foreheads, about the amount of judging that we do. About the pressure that is placed on parents today to be “successful’. It is not only students who are pressurised by the demands placed upon them, parents are equally expected to be up-to-date with the latest trends, on top of this they find themselves held responsible for their children’s outcomes, more especially so when there is trouble. I hope to place “Helicopter Parenting” within this context, and to highlight the influences of vast amounts of information in an ever-changing, unstable and excitable world, leading to an increase in uncertainty and nervousness in all of us.
It was bound to be labeled. Getting a catchy title is better than a pathological one. It is also known as “Overparenting”. Maybe it is ‘over-worried’ parenting. It certainly looks like an unfree and stressful mode of parenting.
With ever increasing amounts of information readily available and so much emphasis placed on parenting today that, what should have been a simple crossover from one generation to the next, looks to have become a competitive sport.
An ex-student comes to visit. We are both looking forward to her visit, as she and her husband have moved overseas. This is her first time home to introduce her baby, by now an 18-month-old toddler sprouting a small fountain of a ponytail from the top of her head. I have a soft spot for this mother; between us there is that special warmth that you spontaneously share with some people.
Except that we cannot have a conversation. The mother’s eyes are fixated on her little girl. My hallway (that you can see from the lounge) is a play space for my own grandchildren. It has a basket of dolls, a play stove with a tiny shopping trolley filled with pretend goods, and a big basket containing an assortment of toys. The little girl naturally toddles off to explore this bounty. Her mother follows.
“It is all right”, I say, “There is nothing there that can be dangerous to her.”
Yet her mother cannot relax.
We end up carrying the small stove and the little shopping trolley into the lounge, where we have a halting conversation whilst the little girl is guided, helped and directed by her mother.
Once they leave, both adults are exhausted. The little girl is fine, except for two mini tantrums (how much interference and interruption can a child take?)
I know that the mother strives to the best parent that she can be.
Maybe that is exactly the problem. Believing that every encounter matters. Believing that a child needs 100% focus and input whenever you are with them. Working too hard at it, having read too many webpages and parenting magazines and books that seek to advise and guide and produce evidence of just exactly how vital parenting is to your child’s future outcomes in life. It is all just too exhausting. Families are also getting smaller, allowing for more focus and value to the lives of small numbers of children (helicoptering six children would take more effort than two parents could manage). It is a common experience for working mothers to feel guilty, thus preferring to err on the side of over-investment rather than possible ‘neglect’. If you add to this our troubled and unstable times that tick at the back of our heads like a bomb, and, as in many cases, being separated from your home country and original community…
Parents worry not only about now, they worry about the future, which is unpredictable and may well include your child moving far away too.
(If you add to this a family history of anxious parenting..Well, then…)
Stressed-out parents need to be reassured that children will not only be fine, they much prefer not to be interrupted and hovered over (Who does?). They naturally prefer more than one familiar caregiver – this is part of our ancestral heritage as much as crawling and exploration is. A mother taking care of a child on her own is a recent phenomenon in human history, and not a commendable one. Both parents and children prefer to be part of a larger clan, where they can engage in age-appropriate activities: Parents chatting and doing their business, whilst children are playing and doing their business.
In an interview many moons ago, the South African painter Judith Mason (1938-2016), in response to a question about being a working mother and working from a studio situated in her garden at home, summed it up well,
Children want a mother to be like a stable rock: something that they can move away from and return to, secure in the knowledge, that she will be there when they need her. 
Extracts from Two research papers on “helicopter parenting”
I hesitate to include these, given my advice on not reading so much!
The findings are interesting though, because they add to our growing awareness that young adults are becoming more anxious, more depressed and less resilient, instead of the other way round.
Helicopter Parenting and Young Adults’ Well-Being: A Comparison Between United States and Finland.
Ming Cui1, 2, Hille Janhonen-Abruquah2, Carol A. Darling1, 2, Fiorella L. Carlos Chavez1, Päivi Palojoki2 1Florida State University, Tallahassee, USA2University of Helsinki, Finland. Article first published online: October 3, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1177/106939711880
Helicopter parenting, defined as a form of overinvolved parenting of young adult children, is shown to be associated with young adult children’s well-being. Furthermore, the phenomenon of helicopter parenting is increasingly evident across various cultures. In this study, the association between helicopter parenting and young adult children’s well-being problems was examined, and the associations were compared between samples of American and Finnish young adults. With a sample of 441 American and 306 Finnish university students, results from path models suggested that maternal and paternal helicopter parenting was associated with university students’ symptoms of anxiety and depression, life dissatisfaction, and emotional dysregulation. Furthermore, even though the mean levels of helicopter parenting were lower among Finnish parents as compared with American parents, the associations between helicopter parenting and young adults’ well-being problems were, in general, equally significant.
Parent and Child Traits Associated with Overparenting
Chris Segrin1, Alesia Woszidlo2, Michelle Givertz3, Neil Montgomery4 (2013). Parent and Child Traits Associated with Overparenting. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology: Vol. 32, No. 6, pp. 569-595. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2013.32.6.569
Overparenting involves the application of developmentally inappropriate levels of parental directiveness, tangible assistance, problem-solving, monitoring, and involvement into the lives of children. Based on theories of family enmeshment, effective parenting, and personality development, this parenting behavior was hypothesized to be associated with negative traits in parents (i.e., anxiety and regret) as well as in young adult children (i.e., narcissism, poor coping styles, anxiety, and stress). Participants were 653 parent-adult child dyads from 32 of the 50 United States who completed measures of overparenting and maladaptive traits. A latent variables analysis showed that parental anxiety was positively associated with overparenting, and that parental regret had an indirect effect on overparenting through greater anxiety. In adult children, overparenting was associated with higher levels of narcissism and more ineffective coping skills (e.g., internalizing, distancing). These ineffective coping skills were associated with greater anxiety and stress in young adult children.
We like to name things; it is a way of pointing a finger at something. This is an apple, that is racism and thát is a helicopter parent. We name what we observe (or think to observe), and thus we make judgments – either good or bad, alternatively we are indifferent or ignorant.
Psychologists are master judges when it comes to human behaviours. They have labels for a variety of things that you wouldn’t even know existed. Which is why we have such a suspicious public: Who would want to their behaviours to be constantly labeled and judged?
As a young Psychologist I was like that. It was part of my own insecurities: labeling and judging was a way for me to feel that I knew something. As I made my own mistakes, as I continued to struggle with my own life, as I sat and listened to others for the 10 000 hours, and as my knowledge and skills improved, I became less and less faultfinding. Until finally, it led to my decision to let go of psychological terminology as far as practically possible (all the fancy labels that I knew); it was a great relief, especially in my practice.
One of the more obvious conclusions that I have arrived at (if you live long enough you discover most of what has been discovered before) is that as much as individual behaviours reflect their own personal histories, they reflect ancestral stories ánd the times that they live in. We are more determined by the personal histories of our ancestors and our wider environments (social, political, economical, fashionable), than we would tend to believe.
Both my grandmothers had mothers who died when they were respectively 12 and 14. The 12 year old gained a wicked stepmother, and went to live for a while in another country. The 14-year old was sent away to live with an aunt. My mother was sent to a far away boarding–school when she was 11. I had two stepsisters whose mother had died when they were little. Together with my stepsisters, we were four children. We were all sent to far-away boarding schools when we were 13. Spot a pattern? A longing for home is a familial nostalgia. A sensitive spot that is readily triggered. If you look at your own families you could be surprised by the ancestral patterns playing out in your life. People who come to see me are often resistant – and at times annoyed- by the questions that I ask about their parents, and their parents’ parents (surely they have come here to talk about their lives now?). Yet, again and again, an ancestral wound comes oozing through.
There is some evidence that trauma can be genetically transferred from generation to generation in the form of altered brain patterning. We know as well that an anxious parent transfers anxiety or avoidance to their children. Avoidance (No problem is so big it can’t be run away from), also learnt, can be a suppression of anxiety in a masked and hidden form. (Picked up by raised cortisol markers, a stress hormone, when saliva is measured). Multiple generations of anxious/neglectful/ abusive/ caring/joyful parenting can continue from one to the next, the habits of the foremothers being passed along like a relay baton.
On the times that we live in
When I was a teenager self-harm was unknown to us (I was in a girls’ only boarding school where privacy was limited to the inside of your mind). We did not harm ourselves, even when in great despair, because we did not know that one could. Drug addiction was something exotic that hippies overseas indulged in – where we lived, hard drugs were not yet available. Bullying, although not non-existent, was certainly not endemic (no television, no internet, no social media). Instead those of us who dared drank too much at parties, smoked cigarettes, sometimes lied to our parents about our whereabouts, and bunked school to go to the beach or to the movies. The values of school reflected the values of our parents and that of the community, so that all of us clearly understood what was ‘good’ and what was ‘bad’. These were solid values and norms that we could kick against. Many of my generation felt empowered by the belief that we were going to change the social norms to create a better, a more egalitarian and less claustrophobic and restrictive world. Freedom!
Today the world is open and exciting, freer than we could have ever believed. It is also fractious, uncertain, unreliable, unstable.
Stress is our common language.
It is only natural that our behaviours will reflect that.
Seven tips on how not to overparent
- Babies can lie on their own, happily gurgling. As cute as this is, this is not your cue to interact with them. Babies also need “me” time. Constant interaction trains their brains not to be able to attend. “Attention deficit” can develop when babies and toddlers are constantly interrupted. Look out for times when your baby is happy on its own (e.g. playing on the floor, kicking to activate a mobile), and watch how long they can do this on their own. They are developing vital attending skills.
- Over-parenting means over-interfering and interrupting. Some parents seem to believe that children need to be trained to grow up. Or that they must stick to a strict schedule. So they interrupt a child who is quietly focused on play, because the parent needs the company, or wants to teach their child something or it is bath time (now!). Being focused on play or a task is one of thé most vital skills that we can build in our children. Being able to focus and concentrate is a core ingredient of successful people. It also limits experiences of frustration. Stretch time to an acceptable limit (a child cannot play past a reasonable bedtime, for example) by GENTLY stating something like, “15 more minutes, then it is dinner time”. Then more firmly , “5 Minutes before dinnertime.” Then, “Its dinnertime”. You can always pack up with them after dinner. This provides you with time to chat and interact.
- Children must have time to play on their own with their toys. Create a time each day when your children are not allowed to interrupt you for 20-30 minutes. As the child grows older, you can increase this time to 45 minutes. This does not mean screen time. You want to help your child to develop self-regulating and attending skills. These are vital skills when your child attends school. Screens do not teach this; they teach distraction instead of focus.
- When you are having a conversation with another adult, make sure that your child learns that this conversation is not to be interrupted unnecessarily. Definitely not every 5 minutes. Children and parents can develop a habit of continuous interaction when together. This is not in your child’s best interests. Once at school, they will have to be able to focus on a task without continuous adult assistance. You do not want your child to be diagnosed with ADHD just because their brains never had sufficient opportunities for the networks for concentration to develop.
- Visit with other parents and children at least once a week. During this visit, make sure that your child learns that your implement rule no 2.
- Children naturally want to do things by themselves. Wherever possible, let them. This is how they learn autonomy and learn to feel competent.
- Set minimum rules and stick to them. This provides structure and security. But don’t overdo it. A house is not a boarding school, neither is it a “free for all”. Children want parents to be parents. This means that you are the leader, that you set the pace- which means that everyone gets enough time to do their own thing.
 Linus, in the cartoon series Peanuts.
 I could not find the exact reference, so this is an approximation. In a recent interview, her daughters described her thus: “If you had to describe her to someone who never knew her, what would you say?” Eccentric, fierce, gentle and magnificent.” What a testimony! https://www.litnet.co.za/interview-daughters-judith-mason/