The term helicopter parenting refers to a parenting style that is overprotective and over-involved. Just like a helicopter hovers, some parents are constantly hovering around their child, observing their every move.
Examples of helicopter parenting include hovering over your child when they’re doing their homework, failing to trust them to do things independently, and interfering in their friendship groups.
A scholarly definition of helicopter parenting is:
“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)
Often, helicopter parents are trying hard to do the right thing but don’t have the coping mechanisms to gradually release responsibility to their children as they mature.
As psychologist Neil Montgomery explains:
“I think what the helicopter parents did is they decided, ‘OK we know what good parenting looks like, we’re just going to ratchet it up to a new level, and our kids are going to be even better” (Rettner, 2010).
Characteristics of Helicopter Parents
Common characteristics of helicopter parents include:
- 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.
Helicopter Parenting Examples
- Being overbearing: Mr. Kim arrives at his daughter’s school gate 1 hour before classes are finished; he has brought an extra coat, bottled water, some snacks, and an umbrella (just in case). The family lives 5-minutes from school and there isn’t a cloud in the sky.
- Taking homework far too seriously: Sarah’s mother sits next to her while she does her homework. When finished, her mother checks it twice and has been known to call the teacher to clarify the assignment instructions.
- Not trusting your child’s friendship choices: Jamal’s father conducts a spot-check on any new friends. He drives by their home to see where they live, how they keep their lawn, and if there are “any loud parties” late at night on the weekends.
- Overscheduling your child: Mrs. Li has scheduled nearly every free hour her daughter has after school and on the weekends with extracurricular and co-curricular activities and specialized tutors.
- Crossing moral lines to advantage your child: Mr. Sing has hired a retired college counselor to write his son’s graduate school applications and work with him 3 days a week to improve his interviewing skills. He plans to go to the admissions office of his son’s top 5 choices “to see what he can get done.”
- Babying your child: Jack is 17 years old. His mother still cuts the meat on his plate at dinner. She packs his lunch every day with only food he likes, even if it is extremely unhealthy, and picks him up after school to take him for ice-cream or a pastry before going home. Later at night she will do his homework for him.
- Escalating small school issues: Mr. Williams has scheduled a meeting with the school principal to discuss why his daughter’s first-grade teacher only gave her 2 gold stars for her coloring page while she gave another student 3 gold stars for a far less perfect performance.
- Intervening in your child’s after-school job: Sanya’s mother attends her daughter’s job interviews and tries to answer the questions for her.
- Not letting your child grow up: A mother keeps sabotaging her son’s employment prospects after he graduates from college because she wants him to live at home forever so she can take care of him.
- Excessively tracking your child: A father has installed a tracker on his son’s phone and calls at least 5 times a day to check-up on him, see if he needs anything and ask what he wants for dinner.
- Denying the child a choice to take risks: Helicopter parents rarely allow their children to take measured risks. Without the chance to take risks, the children fail to develop risk assessment skills.
- Not letting your child play outside: A mother never lets her son play outside because it’s dirty and she thinks sticks are dangerous.
- Monitoring your child’s social media: Here’s a controversial one – should parents be allowed to monitor their child’s social media chats? At what age should parents trust and respect their children enough to not interfere? At some age, it becomes helicopter parenting.
- Attending your child’s romantic dates: A helicopter parent might choose who their adult child can go out on dates with and then sit at the next table to listen-in and take notes.
- Completing your child’s science project: The parent is so concerned about their child’s science grades that they do the child’s project for them, and at the end of the day, the child doesn’t get to learn a lesson and develop self-confidence in doing their own tasks.
Case Studies of Helicopter Parenting
1. The Son Who Never Learned Self-Discipline
This next story is a conglomeration of several stories. The focal character is a young teenager named Michael, who has been raised in a household of helicopter parents…and grandparents.
For Michael’s entire life those around him made nearly every decision for him. Many times, those decisions resulted in restricting Michael’s involvement in extracurricular activities at school and on weekends.
When he wanted to play soccer, his grandmother said no because she thought it would be “too dangerous.” When he wanted to join the school’s Art Club, his father said it wasn’t a good idea because, “artsy people are wild and might introduce him to bad habits.”
Because his life was so restricted, Micael had few friends. He did not know how to relate to others or talk about shared interests. Michael also had problems making decisions on his own because his family had always told him what to do and when.
Eventually, Michael was allowed to go to college. He chose a school as far away from his home as possible. Once there, he rarely called his parents, missed a lot of classes and had trouble keeping himself on a schedule. He had never learned self-discipline, began to fail his classes, and then developed some very unhealthy coping strategies.
You can imagine how this story ends.
2. Entering School Grounds Inappropriately
If parents only have one child, all of their energy becomes focused like a laser on that one child. When the child starts kindergarten, it’s the first time they will be away from home and the watchful eyes of the parents or grandparents.
So, it can be perfectly understandable that parents would worry about what’s happening when their child is out of sight. Afterall, classrooms can be chaotic and with only one teacher to handle 20 rambunctious munchkins, things can get out of hand from time to time for sure.
This is why Jenny’s mom gets caught sometimes sneaking on to the school grounds. She climbs through a hole in the fence outside the view of the security guard stationed at the entrance.
However, she usually gets caught peeking through the windows of her daughter’s classroom. A few times she has actually entered the classroom to scold a child that wasn’t sharing toys with her daughter or acting in some other way that she disapproved of.
The principal has since banned her from campus, but that has had absolutely zero deterrence. She simply doesn’t care what the principal says; she’s going to keep an eye on her daughter no matter what.
3. The Job Application and the Overbearing Parent
Many helicopter parents intervene even once their children have reached an age when they should be independent and handle their own issues.
For example, when a college student applies for weekend jobs, you wouldn’t expect parents to get involved.
But we see sometimes that the parent thinks it’s okay for them to answer the questions on behalf of their college-age child!
Consider this scenario: a HR head calls a home phone number to try to get in touch with a shortlisted applicant. The phone rings, and the parent answers.
But instead of the parent giving the phone to their son, they say “I can answer that question for you!”
And the HR person says “well, you’re not the candidate. I’d like to speak to the person applying for the job.”
But the parent’s helicopter mode kicks-in, and they feel the need to manage the situation: “I can answer for them, I am their parent. I know everything about them.”
Because the parent refuses to relinquish control, the hiring manager gives up, moves on to the next candidate, and the helicopter parent has lost the job for their child.
4. Tipping the Scales of the College Application
This next case study is of a young man about to attend college. His mother is of course curious and has a few questions for the school, so she calls the Student Affairs Office.
The mother begins by just asking a few common questions about the admissions process, as her son has not been officially accepted yet.
However, during the conversation she accidently lets it slip that she paid someone to write his Personal Statement and prepared the whole application for the child.
Her justification is that “Well, I was worried for him, so I did it so I knew it would be perfect.”
Here, we see an example of a helicopter parent crossing moral boundaries to get their child into college. This isn’t the parent’s domain, but they intervened anyway – to the great annoyance of both the college and the young man!
5. Joining your Child at College
Letting go is difficult for most parents. For 18 years, parents put their heart and soul into raising their children. Then, their child goes to college, and we just can’t let go.
When that child leaves for college, it must be like having one’s heart completely torn from the soul. All of a sudden, a huge part of the parents’ lives is gone.
This is why we sometimes read about parents who actually try to enroll in the same college courses as their child. If they can live on campus, in their child’s dorm, then all the better (from their perspective).
It may seem over the top, but every culture is different, and sometimes we don’t realize that not everyone shares our same admiration for individualism and independence.
But, the child’s social development and self-confidence may be severely crushed by this inability to let go!
Helicopter parents engage in a lot of extreme behavior to protect their child and try to provide for them in the best way possible. Although they mean well, their methods can get a little out of control.
Unfortunately, good intentions can sometimes backfire. Research indicates that children of helicopter parents can become dependent, neurotic, and less open-minded.
When we have children, it can be easy to forget that independence is one of the most important traits we can encourage in our children.
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.
Kouros, C.D., Pruitt, M.M., Ekas, N.V., Kiriaki, R., & Sunderland, M. (2017). Helicopter parenting, autonomy support, and college students’ mental health and well-being: The moderating role of sex and ethnicity. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26, 939–949. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-016-0614-3
Lemoyne, T., & Buchanan, T. (2011). Does ‘hovering’ matter? Helicopter parenting and its effect on well-being. Sociological Spectrum, 31(4), 399-418. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02732173.2011.574038
Love, H., May, R. W., Cui, M., & Fincham, F. D. (2021). Helicopter parenting, self-control, and school burnout among emerging adults. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 29(2), 327-337. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-019-01560-z
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.
Rettner, R. (2010, June 30). ‘Helicopter’ parents have neurotic kids, study suggests. Live Science. https://www.livescience.com/10663-helicopter-parents-neurotic-kids-study-suggests.html