Helicopter parenting is a term that defines parents whose involvement in their child’s lives has reached a point where it is destructive. The other terms for it are bulldozer parent, lawnmower parent, or cosseting parent.
This type of parent is characterized by excessive attention, guidance, and meddling.
Possible negative effects of helicopter parenting include low self-esteem, a sense of entitlement, and poor ability to assess risks.
Helicopter parents are termed this way because they keep on hovering around the child, like a helicopter.
What is Helicopter Parenting?
Helicopter parenting is defined as an “overinvolved and overprotective” (Cui et al., 2019, p. 860) parenting style that restricts children’s development of autonomy, independence, and self-efficacy.
Here is a scholarly definition:
“Helicopter parents are characterized as overly involved, protective parents who provide substantial support (e.g., financial, emotional, physical health advice) to their emerging adult children, often intervening in their affairs and making decisions for them.” (Reed et al, 2016, p. 3137)
Some key characteristics of helicopter parenting are listed below:
- Parents who are deeply involved in every aspect of their child’s life.
- Micromanaging of schedules and school activities.
- Applying intense pressure to perform well in school and other activities.
- Constantly worrying about negative things that might happen to their child.
- Excessive interference in the child’s life in an attempt to eliminate any and all negative experiences.
For more characteristics of helicopter parenting, see our article on 15 examples of helicopter parenting.
5 Helicopter Parenting Effects
1. Lower academic performance
Helicopter parenting can have negative effects on learning due to the parent’s excessive interventionism and failure to allow the child to explore, take risks, and make mistakes.
Schiffrin and Liss (2017) highlight that helicopter parenting can decrease intrinsic motivation and increase extrinsic motivation to learn. In other words, children tend to develop less personal interest and excitement in learning; and instead, their key motivations are rewards and punishments.
Furthermore, they may begin to avoid learning, which can negatively affect outcomes. Schiffrin and Liss therefore conclude that “helicopter parenting is related to maladaptive academic motivations that may have negative implications for academic achievement” (2017, p. 47).
2. Poor ability to assess risk
Another feature of the helicopter parent is that they won’t let their child take reasonable risks for fear that their child might be harmed or experience failure.
For example, the parent may not allow their child to play with other children for fear of catching an illness, prevent their children from participating in sports activities, or not allow their child to play outdoors.
Often, this topic leads to debates about whether children were better off 50 years ago, when they would play on the streets until dark; or today, when they’re often highly micro-managed.
See Also: The Benefits of Risky Play
3. The child has low self-efficacy
One of the key findings across the literature on helicopter parenting is that the child may develop decreased self-efficacy.
Self-efficacy refers to your belief in your own abilities. We might consider someone with low self-efficacy to believe that they “can’t do things” and therefore “won’t try them”.
According to a range of literature on helicopter parenting (Reed et al., 2016; van Ingen et al., 2015), it has a significantly negative impact on children’s self-efficacy. As van Ingen et al. (2015) argue:
“Helicopter parents are likely adversely affecting their adult children’s self-reliance and self-efficacy by sending them the message that they cannot handle their own lives” (van Ingen et al., 2015).
In other words, when a parent intervenes and disallows a child from seizing their independence, they have the potential to stunt that child’s sense of their own ability and agency throughout their life.
4. The child cannot cope with negative emotions
Another effect of helicopter parenting is the stunted ability of a child to manage their emotions.
For example, Schiffin et al. (2014, p. 3) have found that college students with highly controlling parents have reported “significantly higher levels of depression and less satisfaction with life.”
For a thought experiment, we might be able to reflect on the child who has always had their needs tended to without effort and who has been coddled so they don’t come across negative experiences. The result is that the child may have less experience learning to cope with stress, failure, and anxiety.
Schiffin et al. (2014, p. 3) explain the intensity of negative emotions among their study participants a a result of “the perceived violation of [their] basic psychological needs for autonomy and competence.”
5. The child may feel self-entitled
Children who get everything ‘served on a silver platter’ may grow up with a feeling of self-entitlement. They may come to think that they deserve the good things in life. Several surveys have supported this hypothesis (Givertz & Segrin, 2014; Greenberger et al., 2008; Schiffin & Liss, 2017).
These children might develop a feeling that they are entitled to help from parents because it’s consistently provided, even when it is unnecessary and restricts a child’s opportunities to exercise agency.
They may also grow up to feel entitled to the same degree of coddling from other authority figures, such as their university professors.
In these instances, children may get messages that other people – not them – are responsible for helping them and enuring their success. In other words, the children are getting a message that they shouldn’t help themselves; rather, they should expect others to help them. We call this an ‘external locus of control’.
Schiffin and Liss (2017, p. 54) argue that this increased self-entitlement “might also reduce academic performance by reducing children’s intrinsic motivation to learn.”
Are there Positive Outcomes from Helicopter Parenting?
Many scholars of helicopter parenting, who tend to be critical of overbearing parents, have been careful to highlight that it is done with good intentions. The parents care deeply for their children and intervene because they care.
And to this extent, children of helicopter parents do tend to recognize that their parents deeply care for them.
For example, Padilla-Walker and Nelson (2012) have found that some helicopter parent children have identified:
“increased perceptions of openness, guidance, and emotional support in the parent– child relationships” (Reed et al., 2016, p.2)
There are many cases where intervention in your child’s life is, of course, a trait of responsible parenting. These might include intervening in the interest of your child, caring for your child, and ensuring they cannot come into harm.
Helicopter parenting, however, refers to situations where parents are habitual hoverers. They are overinvolved to the extent that it restricts children’s human development and, in particular, the development of healthy autonomy. They are defined as “overinvolved and overprotective.”
The opposite of this is the autonomy-supportive parent, who trains their child to develop autonomy and gives them opportunities to exercise independence. As the child enters adulthood, the autonomy-supportive parent remains present for their adult child, but respects that they are independent adults leading their own lives and making their own autonomous decisions.
Cui, M., Darling, C., Coccia, C., Fincham, F. D., & May, R. W. (2019). Indulgent parenting, helicopter parenting, and well-being of parents and emerging adults. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 28, 860–871.
Drew, C. (2018). ‘We call this “play”, however…’: Navigating ‘play anxiety’ in early childhood education and care markets. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 17(2), 116-128. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1476718X18809385
Givertz, M., & Segrin, C. (2014). The association between overinvolved parenting and young adults’ self-efficacy, psychological entitlement, and family communication. Communication Research, 41, 1111–1136.
Greenberger, E., Lessard, J., Chen, C., & Farruggia, S. P. (2008). Self-entitled college students: Contributions of personality, parenting, and motivational factors. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37(10), 1193-1204.
Padilla-Walker, L. M., & Nelson, L. J. (2012). Black hawk down?: establishing helicopter parenting as a distinct construct from other forms of parental control during emerging adulthood. Journal of Adolescence, 35, 1177–1190
Reed, K., Duncan, J. M., Lucier-Greer, M., Fixelle, C., & Ferraro, A. J. (2016). Helicopter parenting and emerging adult self-efficacy: Implications for mental and physical health. Journal of Child and family Studies, 25(10), 3136-3149.
Schiffrin, H. H., & Liss, M. (2017). The effects of helicopter parenting on academic motivation. In Key Topics in Parenting and Behavior (pp. 47-55). New York: Springer.
Schiffrin, H. H., Liss, M., Miles-McLean, H., Geary, K. A., Erchull, M. J., & Tashner, T. (2014). Helping or hovering? The effects of helicopter parenting on college students’ well-being. Journal of child and family studies, 23(3), 548-557.
van Ingen, D. J., Freiheit, S. R., Steinfeldt, J. A., Moore, L. L., Wimer, D. J., Knutt, A. D., & Roberts, A. (2015). Helicopter parenting: the effect of an overbearing caregiving style on peer attachment and self-efficacy. Journal of College Counseling, 18, 7–20. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-1882.2015.00065.x
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.