When I entered high school, my parents offered me a cell phone — I wanted no part of it. At that time, I was already expected to check in with my parents every half hour by phone when hanging out with friends, even if I was at the park right by our home or at someone else's house with adult supervision. This baffled my peers, whose own parents believed that no news was good news when it came to their children. Besides, we lived in a town of 11,000 with virtually no crime, so I couldn't understand what my parents thought might happen if I didn't call with constant updates. In 2002, I was desperate to break away from my mom and dad's helicopter parenting, and a cell phone represented an extension of the net — since that time, the web of surveillance has only gotten bigger.
From birth, we watch our babies on monitors — in their cribs, at home with a babysitter, at daycare — we affix location monitors to their backpacks, we give them phones so we can call if needed; we may acquire distance but we are always watching. It is one piece of the greater phenomenon of "helicopter parenting," generally described as an aggressive or controlling form of hands-on parenting.
This encompasses trying to protect children from all potential harm, paving the way for kids to succeed, being overly involved generally. The behavior of those involved in the recent college admissions bribery scandal has been viewed by some as a form of helicopter parenting, as it entailed parents overstepping their boundaries in getting their kids accepted to elite schools without merit. The researchers I spoke with for this story agree on one thing: helicopter parenting can come from a place of tenderness and wanting the best for one's children, but can also cause kids to suffer in the long term.
When Helicopter Kids Grow Up
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies suggests that helicopter parenting can pose challenges for emerging adults. Looking at more than 460 college-aged adults, the researchers found that both helicopter parenting and autonomy-supportive parenting (in which parents create a supportive environment for the child's personality) can impact the subjects' mental and physical health and life satisfaction. Too much involvement from parents can lead to depression and anxiety in college-aged people, the research found. Study researcher Kayla Reed-Fitzke tells Romper via email that there are certainly pros to helicopter parenting, such as having a parent to help make healthy decisions for their offspring. This can backfire, however, when that individual doesn't learn how to make their own decisions.
"Some of the cons may be the adult child’s intrapersonal abilities, such as the ability to cope with challenges and handle interpersonal conflicts," Reed-Fitzke writes. "Feeling as if you are unable to handle life’s challenges or having a low tolerance for stress can be linked with poor mental health, such as anxiety and depression."
Overprotected parenting can also affect the social lives of children. A 2013 study published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect found that overprotected children are more likely to experience bullying. Study author Dieter Wolke said at the time that "children with overprotective parents may not develop qualities such as autonomy and assertion and therefore may be easy targets for bullies."
Anxiety can be passed down through generations and is 'relatively highly transmissible from parent to child.'
Now that I'm a parent myself, I am on a mission to give my son a different experience in hopes of sparing him the kind of anxiety I carried as a kid after my parents downloaded all their worst fears about the world onto me. But even though I sometimes manage to control my anxiety for the sake of my young son, there's a chance he could run into the same issues I did based on his genetic makeup. Anxiety can be passed down through generations and is "relatively highly transmissible from parent to child," according to Dr. Sourav Sengupta, an assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Buffalo's Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Speaking to Romper by phone, Sengupta says one of his child patients has a parent who was raised by an anxious parent, "and that anxiety sort of flows through the generations, across multiple generations."
"There is a biological inheritability to anxiety," Sengupta says. "Maybe it's something as simple as someone having a greater propensity to kind of trigger [a person's] fight or flight response system. That sensitivity is something that could be biologically passed from parent to child, or grandparent to parent to child. We would have a sense of that looking at, say, twin studies."
When asked about the long-term impact of helicopter parenting on kids, Reed-Fitzke says it's hard to know whether children of helicopter parents might be more anxious because of the way they were parented, or if they are simply more prone to anxiety:
"At this point I don’t think there is enough longitudinal data out there for us to be able to really understand the nuances at play here. Is it the children who already have a proclivity for anxiety that elucidate helicopter parenting behaviors? Is it that over-parenting behaviors foster a sense of anxiety in children by not teaching them how to cope with challenges? Is it a bit of both?" Reed Fitzke says it is likely the latter, but we are still, essentially a living experiment for that hypothesis.
What Kids Lose When Adversity Is Swept Away
Much has been said about the losses children face when raised in overprotective environments. In 2014, The Atlantic writer Hanna Rosin published an extensive feature on this subject titled "The Overprotected Kid," arguing that "failure to supervise has become, in fact, synonymous with failure to parent." This gives children little room to use their imaginations and develop executive functioning skills. Noting Rosin's article, which he asks his fellows to read every year, Sengupta says he mourns a time in which children once roamed more freely, and are now confined to only their backyards (if they even have backyards) because of misleading public fears of danger.
"I think there's a certain cost to that in experience that children pay," he says. "I think that to a certain extent children are most resilient when they're exposed to a lot of things during their childhood and adolescence. Some of those things can and probably should involve a little bit of risk, a little bit of uncertainty, and kind of working through that a little bit more autonomously, especially as they move into preadolescence and adolescence is probably a good thing for them."
Try to remind your child to be safe and to keep themselves safe, that's not anything that's making them feel like mom or dad don't care about them.
Of course, it's not all bad. In February, New York Times writer Pamela Druckerman made a case for the effectiveness of helicopter parenting, suggesting that parental over-involvement may lead to more life success for children. As Reed-Fitzke's study suggests, helicopter parents can help their offspring eat a balanced diet and get ample exercise. Sengupta, who prefers the term "highly protective parenting" to helicopter parenting, says this kind of anxiety about keeping one's children safe, healthy, and happy is a sign of love: "To try to remind your child to be safe and to keep themselves safe, that's not anything that's making them feel like mom or dad don't care about them. At the same time, it may not be the thing that's best for them either."
Reed-Fitzke shares a similar sentiment as Sengupta that when over-parenting comes from a place of truly wanting the best for one's child, it's often accompanied by warmth and love. They both also acknowledge that certain scenarios might cause parents to reasonably overprotect their children. Sengupta notes that some of the mothers of black youths he works with are understandably overprotective of their sons in the context of high-profile tragic interactions with the police force. He also says children with disabilities or special needs often need a parent who is going to take charge and advocate on behalf of their child.
Reed-Fitzke says there is a difference between the perception that a child might need some additional guidance, however, and a response to a real need for protection: "For example, parents may engage in over-parenting behaviors when living in a dangerous neighborhood out of the real need for the child to be protected, whereas other parents who live in a relatively safe neighborhood but have the misperception of a dangerous society may engage in over-parenting behaviors out of the perceived need for the child to be protected."
Dr. Rosina McAlpine, a parenting expert based in Australia, tells Romper via email that stigmatizing this form of parenting with labels, or any other form for that matter, isn't helpful to parents or children, and that it's wise to remember that many of these parents are simply trying to do right by their kids.
"We need to understand that parents are thrown in at the deep end when it comes to parenting — no manual comes with the child — and there is so much pressure on parents to be 'good parents' even though they may have had no training in child development or parenting and not have the skills they need to raise happy, healthy, well-adjusted children," McAlpine says.
McAlpine adds that ensuring safety is a vital part of parenting, but at the same time, too much of an overbearing parental approach could hinder children from significant life experiences. Sengupta shares a similar sentiment, telling Romper it's important for children to have appropriate experiences, even if they involve a little risk, and to learn from mistakes and failure.
How Should Helicopter Gen 2.0 Parent?
So what is an anxious person to do when want they to take a different approach to parenting than the overprotective style of their past? Dr. Sengupta says the good news is that some people of anxious households are aware of the potential problem they have on their hands, and go out of their way to give their children a different life as a result: "I did want to highlight that there also are times though when those parents recognize that their parent was super anxious, and despite their own internal anxiety, they kind of almost create an opposite reaction, like what would my parent do? I would do something different."
The downside is that some people might still repeat the behavior that was modeled for them, as much as they don't want to that, says Reed-Fitzke.
"As much as we try to avoid being like our parents, we do what we know," Reed-Fitzke says. "We are social learners and often engage in behavior that we have seen others do. Over-parenting may be a replication of generational parenting practices or, in contrast, the complete opposite of how someone was raised (e.g., neglect). How one parents is a complicated mix of upbringing, personality, education, environment, socioeconomic status, and place in time."
Children are also remarkably plastic and malleable in a wonderful way.
Sengupta adds that the first two years of a child's life help shape their confidence and sense of self, so it's crucial to give that child a strong foundation from the beginning. Even if there are issues in those first two years, however, children are still resilient enough to overcome a troubling set of circumstances once their situation turns around, he says.
"If there is something really off about that relationship in that first year or two, that is something that can alter the way that a young child's personality can develop," he says. "But it's important to remember that children are also remarkably plastic and malleable in a wonderful way. Just because they had a bad initial year or two doesn't mean they can't resiliently bounce back."
This gives me a lot to consider about my son's first year of life. He turned 1 in August, and I've been trying to wrap my head around all of the things I might have done to inject anxiety into his life thus far. Did I shriek too loudly when he almost swallowed a puffy sticker a few weeks ago, implying to him that all choking hazards will result in certain death? Did I follow him a little too closely at Gymboree after an older kid got in his face and snatched his pacifier out of jealousy? I can't do anything about the past, but I can be aware of my tendencies going forward, and ultimately have a conversation with him about real and imagined fears that have plagued me my entire life.
I recently took my son to library story time for the first time ever, and as he squirmed out of my arms and onto the floor with a crowd of little ones, I had to fight the instinctive helicopter parenting urge to crawl over to him and keep any potential trouble between other babies at bay. Aside from some tug-of-war over a toy, he loved being around kids his age, and who am I to deprive him of that? I don't want him to be afraid of new, potentially scary experiences, even if I still hold those very fears true to my heart.