By Benna Strober, Psy.D.
Wikipedia defines a Helicopter Parent as “a parent who pays extremely close attention to a child’s or children’s experiences and problems, particularly at educational institutions. Helicopter parents are so named because, like helicopters, they hover overhead.”
In March 2014, when Ally Dinhofer, my 15-year-old daughter informed me she didn’t want to go back to sleepaway camp, we sat down to devise another plan for her summer. Around the same time, her father was asked to join friends on a trip to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. We discussed it and a decision was made for my firstborn to join her father and a group of 16 other adults on the trip of a lifetime. She was to be the youngest (by seven years) in the group. Who was I to say no to this opportunity for Ally to bond with her dad, experience an awesome climb and, I must admit, create an amazing topic for her college essay? I was very excited for her until her father arrived at my house with an oxygen deprivation tent that would go over Ally’s bed and gradually reduce her oxygen intake while she slept so she could acclimate to the thin mountain air. Panic set it. How could I let her fly halfway across the world to climb 19,341 feet and be deprived of oxygen? I started getting my own shortness of breath. Could my baby, the one who had sleep apnea as a toddler, actually survive? What if she got hurt? Or sick?
I overcame my anxiety, somewhat, over the next few months because I knew she would be with her dad and a well-trained staff. When my ex told me he would have a special phone that would allow me to speak with my daughter from the mountain every day I breathed even easier. I was so grateful to hear her voice. I needed to let go.
When your child is heading out the door–whether to sleepaway camp this summer, college come fall or any other “first” without you–it is time to start letting go of the cockpit controls. Realize your role as a parent is to raise your children to become independent people who can navigate their world without you, which also means they make their own mistakes and then actually, hopefully, learn something from them. At what age did/do you stop contacting teachers when they get a bad grade, checking parent portals to then question every missing assignment? What would happen if you actually let them handle some of these experiences, fail and then learn from that failure? I promise they will still love you if you let them do the things they can do for themselves.
When children are younger, parents need to make decisions about what is best for them. For helicopter parents, over time, “best for them” becomes more about what parents think is best and less about what the child wants. Doing everything for your children teaches them to be dependent and have limited internal resources to trust their own instincts and opinions. Yes, teens make mistakes, and some can be quite scary, considering their frontal lobes (the site for the continuing development of decision making skills, impulsivity level, ability to organize and problem solving skills) are still developing. That is where the parenting you did when they were younger hopefully helps them make smart choices. I’m not saying you should just walk away and let them navigate their lives alone. Instead, continue to guide them without hovering overhead to swoop in at the first sign of a potential problem.
I frequently explain to parents that the teenage years are a time of letting go from both sides. Parents are learning how to let their children become their own individual selves and teens are learning to let go, make their own mistakes but know their parents are there if they need them. Teen rebellion is normal and should be expected to some degree. Depending on how we, as parents, manage the rebellion, can make all the difference.
A teenage girl who comes to my office shared her feelings about her mother’s helicopter parenting. “I know my mom is concerned about me, but when she’s in a bad mood because she’s worried about me it’s time to cut the cord. All it does is stress me out even more!” Listen to these words and remember that while your kids need you and your guidance they also need their space to grow and learn from their own mistakes.
Dr. Benna Strober is a psychologist in private practice in Mt. Kisco, specializing in individual and family therapy with children, adolescents and their parents. She is also the mother of three amazing teenage daughters who make her proud every day. For more information and helpful articles, please visit Dr. Strober’s website at www.Bennastrober.com