As parents, we love and worry about our children from the moment they’re born. As they grow into adolescence, their academic and social lives become more complicated and competitive. There is so much to worry about—grades, driving, drugs and alcohol, dating and sex, friendships, social media and gaining admittance to a college which will hopefully provide them with opportunities for employment and lifelong success.
We often have less time than we would like for our children due to our own job demands, marital issues, single parenthood, care-taking for our own parents, and the sheer volume of information and deadlines to keep up with in today’s society.
Who among us as parents has not had a “helicopter moment”—a time when we intervened to solve a problem for a teenager that they could have solved on their own? We may have sent an email to a teacher regarding a grade. We may have spoken to a coach about playing time. We may have helped a little too much on an assignment. Maybe we even intervened in a social situation with a friend or romantic partner. These occasional moments are a natural part of parenthood. But if this becomes a frequent pattern, and we are intervening on a regular basis, we may be interfering in our child’s healthy development and actually setting them up for failure.
When we hover, we send our children the message that they cannot do anything successfully for themselves. We’re not allowing them to develop the skills for overcoming life’s challenges and stressors. If we’re always providing them with the answers, or rescuing them from experiencing any discomfort or distress, they will develop into adults who lack competence and confidence. Over time, this also affects our relationship with our children—they may come to resent our interference.
Young adults who have experienced helicopter parenting often lack their own goals and motivations, because they have learned only to do as they are told and that others will solve their problems. They don’t take responsibility for their behavior and actions, because others do that for them. And we as parents end up more stressed by the burden and guilt of not being able to solve all of their problems, because that’s an impossible expectation.
Of course, if an issue involves immediate safety concerns, as parents we must step in and intervene. But for day-to-day problems, here are some tips to provide support and structure, remain involved and foster resilience without micromanaging:
- Focus on relationships. Children thrive when they have at least one adult in their life who is consistently emotionally present. Having structured or unstructured family time is much more important than filling a schedule with extracurricular activities. Most of us know the research that shows that in families who eat meals together more frequently, adolescents have higher well-being and better relationships. Healthy relationships allow for the development of social and emotional regulation skills, which allows for problem-solving and overcoming obstacles.
- Identify and highlight strengths. A sense of self-efficacy is an important part of developing resilience. Pay attention to what your child does well. It could be a sport, a creative activity, or the way they interact with others. Value and praise this. Notice effort, even if they don’t yet have skill in an area they would like. Knowledge of our strengths helps us bounce back from disappointments.
- Address skill deficits. The reality is that each child has skill deficits. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they cannot do for themselves or attain their goals. Identifying these deficits, and figuring out how to address them, will help your teenager solve problems on their own. For example, if they have deficits in time management, help them develop routines. Teenagers still need help with study skills, managing projects, and other academic skills. Being a helicopter parent means doing the work for them, or asking a teacher to grade more generously. Being an involved parent means proactively identifying resources to help them address their deficits.
- Set realistic expectations. Relentless pressure to succeed is toxic for children. This pressure often increases in high school, as the prospect of adulthood and independence looms. We know that success doesn’t necessarily result in happiness, and yet our culture remains focused on it. If you find your helicopter blades spinning as your teen struggles with a problem, you can decatastrophize the situation by asking “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” If the answer is that your teenager might experience some emotional discomfort but will likely recover, then allow this possibility. Let them know they can handle this with your support.
- LISTEN and be curious. When your teenager comes to you with a problem, listen much more than you talk. For example, if your daughter tells you about an argument with a friend, listen. Ask how she feels. Her own solutions will likely flow from this conversation. If your son tells you about a bad grade and complains that his teacher is unfair, ask him what options he thinks he has for responding. Ask him if he thinks other options might be more helpful. Be a coach instead of a drill instructor.
Remember those days when your child was a toddler just learning to walk? Remember when they wobbled and teetered and tottered? You made sure they didn’t seriously injure themselves, but you let them fall, and then they sometimes cried because it hurt or was scary. And then you let them figure out how to get back up to do it all over again. Or you gave them a quick helping hand and then let go. If you had never let go, they never would have learned to walk. Our job as involved, but not hovering, parents of teenagers is no different. Keep a watchful eye, encourage and teach. But also learn to let go. They will struggle at times, but only through these struggles will they learn to thrive.
Medical executive editor for the mental health blog series: Bela Sood, MD