Haven’t we all had a helicopter moment? Perhaps it was a note to a teacher protesting a grade, or a call to a coach insisting our teenager gets to play in next week’s game. Maybe it was helping too much with an English paper or wrangling an invitation to a party. Whatever the reason, we stepped in and did for our teenager what they could— and probably should—have handled on their own.
Occasional moments like these are part of being a parent. We love our teenagers and want the best for them. But when intervention happens too often, and we find ourselves handling life’s challenges for our teenagers week after week— or day after day—then we may be hurting more than helping.
Teens Must Handle Challenges on Their Own
In order for our teenagers to grow into successful adults, they must learn to handle challenges on their own. This doesn’t mean that we let our teenagers go their own way no matter what they’re up against, but it does mean that, more often than not, we must let them take the lead.
And when our radar detects trouble, we act. “Some parents hope to rescue their teenagers from getting a bad grade or from a social situation or from any of the pitfalls that can happen in life, believing perhaps that it will be too difficult for their teen to handle,” explains Amy Speidel, a Cleveland-area parenting coach.
“We have a pessimistic attitude toward our kids that says they cannot do anything safely or successfully without our help,” adds New York City-based syndicated columnist Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe Self-Reliant Children without Going Nuts with Worry.
So why do we do it? What’s changed from the hands off parenting style of past generations to the enmeshed style so frequently found today? Why do we think that our teenagers can’t handle what we handled at their age? Well, according to the experts, there are several factors at play.
Love and Anxiety
First, foremost and most obvious, we love our teenagers. “We believe that no one has our teenager’s best interests at heart. That’s not self-aggrandizing. That’s truly love,” says Deborah Gilboa, MD, a.k.a. Dr. G, a Pittsburgh-area physician. “And as they move into adolescence, we’re also still in the habit of taking care of all their needs.”
Anxiety for our teenagers’ future is another reason. “There is an apt recognition that the world is a more competitive place now,” notes Dr. Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. “And that this generation will have to work harder to be as successful as their parents.”
No doubt. Take getting into college, particularly a top-ranked college. It’s just much harder to do these days. In fact, how many of us would get into the college we attended? The current economic climate doesn’t help matters; even attending a prestigious college doesn’t guarantee a job upon graduation for our teens.
Then, there are our worries over driving and drugs and alcohol and sex and everything else that can go wrong—sometimes drastically so—in their lives. And, as if all of this weren’t enough, chances are we’re also acting out of guilt.
“We feel guilty because it’s so much harder for our teenagers today or because we’re asking them to do so much or because we’re divorced or we work too much or whatever,” Gilboa says.
Wait, Should We Really Land this Helicopter?
So, if the world has changed, if it’s that much harder for our teenagers, isn’t the appropriate response to be more enmeshed with them? Absolutely not, the experts say.
“We can almost describe it like this,” Speidel says. “It is as if parents are attempting to help their teens develop an internal guidance system, but never allow the teen to experience the learning as their own. For instance, years ago, if you were 12 years old and nobody picked you up at the end of an activity, you had to figure it out. Now, teens don’t do that; they just make a call.”
Yet, it’s this figuring out of day-to-day problems that teenagers need to grow successfully into adulthood, Speidel notes. “By giving children the answers, parents are actually creating a foreman-on-the-job response in their child that says, ‘I don’t have to bank this knowledge because you will have the answer for me.’”
In other words, when teenagers deal with a challenge, they learn how to deal with a challenge. When they, and not their parents, talk to the coach about playing in next week’s soccer game or to the teacher about a poor grade, then the next time a similar situation arises, they will have built the skills to do so.
But, when a parent swoops in and takes charge, these skills won’t develop.
“It can feel like a vote of no confidence. The parent is, in effect, telling the teenager: ‘I don’t think you can handle this, so I am going to handle it for you,’” Damour says.
Then, there’s the tendency of many enmeshed parents to rescue their teenagers from the consequences of their actions. For example, the parent who calls to complain about a grade her teenager “deserved” is not helping her teenager at all. Why study next time if Mom or Dad can fix it for you?
“Consequences give our brain information that says: This worked well; I want to do it again. Or: This didn’t work at all for me; I want to avoid that or try something different. The brain actually wires itself around these experiences,” Speidel notes.
What's at Stake?
What’s at stake? A lot. If parents don’t allow teenagers to take charge of their lives—and experience the positive and negative consequences of their actions—they will grow into adults who lack confidence, and perhaps even the competence, to successfully make their way in the world.
Meanwhile, our relationship with our teenagers is also at risk when we helicopter. “There may be kids who find this totally inappropriate and humiliating,” Damour says. “It puts them in the position of being angry with someone who is acting on their behalf.” Meaning you.
Coming in for a Landing
Former New York Times and now Huffington Post columnist Lisa Belkin said it all when she wrote: “Our own quirks look, to us, like concern or prudence or love. It’s everyone ELSE who hovers.”
Isn’t it true? It’s easy to “tsk, tsk” about instances of extreme helicoptering— like the parent of the Colgate University student who called the school to complain about the plumbing conditions in China, where her daughter was spending a semester— but when it comes to our own teenagers, determining how much is too much is not easy.
“I think parents feel frustrated by this. They wonder: ‘So, I’m just supposed to let them sink or swim?’” Speidel says. “It’s the balance that’s so important. Are you giving them steps along the way to become that confident adult that you clearly want them to become? They are not going to become competent just because they reach a certain age. They become that confident adult because they have those experiences leading up to that, which tell them, ‘You are capable of this.’”
Here are some strategies to get you started:
Listen (a lot) more than you suggest.
When your teenager comes to you with a problem, instead of providing a solution, just listen— and be curious. “So, for instance, if your daughter comes home and says, ‘A friend is having a party, and I wasn’t invited,’ the tendency might be to say, ‘Well, are you having trouble with your friend? Did you do something? Do you want me to call her mom?’ In other words, ‘How do you want me to interfere?’” explains Speidel. “Instead, the first thing you should do is become curious about how your child is experiencing this situation and ask, ‘I’m wondering how you feel about this?’ It’s important for your child to know that the feeling is hers to own, not for you to fix.”
Be a coach.
Asking questions is also appropriate when it comes to supporting your teenagers through problems. “Parents should do a lot of thoughtful coaching. For example, if your teenager is having trouble with a teacher, you could ask, ‘Would it be helpful to email your instructor?’ or ‘What’s the appropriate verbiage?’ or ‘What are your goals?’” Damour suggests. But, coaching your teenager on what to do with language like, “Here’s how to handle this,” is not appropriate.
Start with low stakes—and don’t rescue your teenager from the consequences.
Teaching our teenagers to fend for themselves means allowing them to make their own choices and experience the consequences of those choices. For an enmeshed parent, it can be gut-wrenching to watch teenagers stumble, perhaps even fall, which is exactly what they’ve been trying to prevent with their hovering.
Mobile, Alabama father of three, Tilmon Brown, knows this all to well. “My daughter is a lost puppy. So I have to decide: Do I let her flounder and make a mess of her life or do I get involved and help her succeed?”
For those of us, like Brown, who struggle day in and day out with being enmeshed, it’s hard to know where to start. So, here’s an idea. “Next time your blades are spinning, ask yourself: ‘What’s the worst that could happen in this scenario?’” says Speidel. “And, if the answer is that your teenager ‘could be hurt, but it seems as if they will recover,’ then allow the possibility of hurt, knowing they can recover and do it differently the next time. Every time you allow your child to have a disappointment and recover, what you’re saying is: ‘You are strong. You can handle this. And, we’ve got your back.’”
When our teenagers were toddlers, just learning to walk, we were happy to let them teeter, totter, and tumble because we understood that this is how children learn to walk— and eventually run. Our teenagers are not so different: They will wobble; they will trip; they will most certainly fall. But, if we let them do it enough, they will also fly.
Tiger Parenting: The Flip Side of the Coin?
Thanks to Amy Chua’s bestselling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, we now have yet another parenting moniker at our disposal: Tiger Mom.
Tiger mom—or tiger parent—means a parent who pushes her children to excel, at times using strategies that may seem excessive to the rest of us.
While it’s most often seen with academics, it also happens in music or sports or debate or dance or most any competitive activity in which a tiger parent decides, “My child will be the best.”
At Life with Teens we wondered: Are tiger parents the same as helicopter parents? They are, after all, very involved with their children’s lives. So, we asked our experts to weigh in.
“I would say those are mostly different dynamics,” explains Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. “You can have superdemanding parents that expect a kid to manage, but the helicopter parent does not think their kid can manage.”
What’s more, tiger parents want their children to experience hard knocks, says Harvard-affiliated sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman, author of the forthcoming Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. “Competitive parents recognize that no matter how great you are, you are going to face adversity at some point in your life. If you learn how to deal with that at a younger age, and in a safer environment, that’s a good thing.”
Advice from Our Expert
Why do we helicopter? Because we love our teenagers and, at times, we’re afraid for them. But, says Deborah Gilboa, MD, a.k.a. Dr. G, a Pittsburgh-area physician who also dispenses parenting advice on HuffPost Parents and Twitter, we need to get over that. Letting our teenagers stumble is just what they need.
What do you think of the term “helicopter parent?”
I prefer to say “enmeshed parent.” It is honest, but not as condemning.
What are we doing when we’re enmeshed with our teenagers?
We’re not building resilience. Our goal is to raise our teenagers so they can leave us; we’re important, but temporary. When we don’t teach our teenagers to manage problems on their own, they don’t learn resilience. And, if we don’t teach resilience, then we rob them of the self-esteem that comes from learning that they are resilient, that they can solve their own problems and make their way in life on their own.
So what’s the alternative?
Be engaged, but not enmeshed. Listen much more than you give advice. I read this great article years ago where the writer described how her dad responded when she came to him with a problem. He would say, “Wow, that’s a tough fix. I’ll be interested to see what you do about it.” And he was not being patronizing. He was saying, “I’ll be interested to see how you solve this problem. I have faith in you, and I want to hear how it goes.” Listen, listen, listen, so you can be engaged, but bite your tongue. Offer advice only a fraction of the time, even though you have the perfect piece of advice. Because the message when you don’t offer advice is that you have faith that your teenager has some good ideas about how to fix this problem on his or her own.
Even if they mess up?
The biggest gift we can give our teenagers is NOT protecting them from consequences. If your teenager is going to get benched because of a C in math, you should not argue with the coach or the principal or the math teacher; you should say, “How are you going to improve your grade?” If we protect them from consequences when they are teenagers—and don’t teach them resilience— they will be shocked and betrayed by the real world. We are not doing them a good service. That’s the danger of being enmeshed with our kids. We’re setting up false expectations for how they will be treated in every aspect of their lives.
That’s hard to do for enmeshed parents.
Yes, it’s hard but not impossible. It is very difficult to change how you feel, but how you feel is not as important as what you do. Parents can change their actions without changing their feelings. Change your goal from raising a teenager who is protected to raising one who is resilient.
Okay, so say my teenager never gets up on time for school?
I would say, “Your ride to school leaves at this time. But I’m not going to yell anymore, because it ruins my day.” If they miss the bus, they miss the bus. However, you and your teen must agree on the consequences if school is missed. By high school, you can wait for the school to give consequences, but be cautious about inserting yourself between the child and the consequences. Your teenager may get an unexcused absence; they may have to take a grade hit. But, high school is a much better time to understand the cost of consequences rather than in college or at a job. I would also recommend you give your teenager three pieces of paper: three no-questions-asked rides to school. This can help you and your teenager ease into the program.
A big project is due, but my teenager is doing a terrible job. What now?
When it comes to a younger teenager, I encourage parents to think of themselves as a project manager, but not an employee. You can talk to your child about timelines and resources, but don’t do the work for them. Doing these projects is not really about, say, learning all the names of the planets in the solar system. They’re about learning how to manage timelines, manage frustration, etc.—all the tools we need to become competent adults. And, if you do the project for them—and especially if they get a good grade—they are not going to feel good about it. So, yes, let them fail if necessary. You are saying: “This is your work.” And, you let them see that one grade is not a reflection of who they are and that they have what it takes to fail and recover. For an older teenager, do much less. They should handle most of this on their own. Again, let them experience the consequences of their actions.
What about the teenager who is not handing in homework day-to-day?
This could suggest that your teenager has an organizational problem. But it could also be something else, like anxiety or social pressures. I always tell my patients that if they see a dramatic change in their child, that is not a time to be hands-off. So, if you see a dramatic change in grades or their friends, then in a very non-accusatory way, sit down with your teenager and say, “You need something you are not getting. There is a missing link for you, and we need to figure it out.” Promise yourself that you will not try to fix it in that first conversation, just be empathetic and listen. Walk away and sit with it for a few hours, then go back and say, “I’ve been thinking about what you said.” Then, you can start a conversation about next steps.
Helicopter Parenting POLL
We polled our staff, readers, experts, friends, and family to bring you a Top 13 of moments when our helicopter blades were whirling. While some may make you giggle or gasp, others may sound, well, uncomfortably familiar—proof positive of how difficult this can all be. The bottom line: if these moments are the rule in your home, and not the exception, it may be time to take a deep breath, review the tips from our experts and come in for a landing.
1. Recently, I emailed about 100 adults to ask them to be mindful of their behavior during an upcoming meeting that my high schooler was also attending.
2. I called my daughter’s college to complain about the food.
3. I called my son’s school because he missed the deadline to return a form that would allow him to participate in an extracurricular activity.
4. I can’t help myself. I attend my daughter’s rehearsals, take notes and then review with her the areas that I think need improvement.
5. I filled out my son’s applications for a summer job, and I called to schedule the interview.
6. I filled out my daughter’s college applications and helped her write the essay.
7. I called my daughter’s boss to ask for a better work schedule.
8. My son had to return a book to his college’s bookstore. There was a problem, so while he was standing in the store, he called me on his cell phone, and I talked to the manager.
9. I require my teenager to take a picture on her phone and text it to me, so that I know she really is where she says she is.
10. I check online daily to make sure my daughter’s grades are acceptable.
11. I went to my son’s school and held his spot in line to make sure he got into an activity he wanted to sign up for.
12. I drive my daughter to school 2 – 3 days a week because she can’t get to the bus stop on time.
13. And here’s one from the headlines. A house shared by seven Boston University students was going up in flames. Instead of dialing 911, one of the students called his parents, who in turn alerted the University’s police department.