What Is Helicopter Parenting?

Helicopter parents may hover over their kids, but this approach isn't all bad

Potential Symptoms of Helicopter Parenting - Illustration by Madelyn Goodnight

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

What Is Helicopter Parenting?

Helicopter parenting refers to an overprotective and very involved parenting style. Just like a helicopter hovers, so do these parents. They typically involve themselves in all aspects of their children's lives, sometimes to the detriment of the kids.

Helicopter parents tend to pay extremely close attention to their kids' activities and schoolwork in an effort to not only protect them from pain and disappointment but also to help them succeed. Helicopter parents are known to micromanage their children and become extremely entwined in every aspect of their lives.

"These parents tend to be overprotective and worry excessively about their children," says Michelle M. Reynolds, PhD, a clinical psychologist and founder of LifeCatalyst: Therapy and Coaching. "They often micromanage their children’s schedules and intervene frequently to make things smoother for their children."

The term helicopter parent was first coined in a 1969 book titled "Between Parent & Teenager." The teen featured in the book reported that his mother watched over him like a helicopter. Since then, many college administrators have used the term to refer to parents who continue to try and watch over their children from a distance after they have gone away to college, and the term spread to encompass all overprotective parents.

Why Do Parents Become Helicopter Parents?

It's a natural feeling to want to protect your children. It's also understandable to desire for your children to be successful and to grow into capable adults. Sometimes, though, parents can be tempted to heap too much pressure and protection on their children, whether out of love or something else.

Giving Kids a Happy Childhood

Dr. Reynolds suggests that one primary reason for helicopter parenting is the simple desire to give children a childhood unlike what the parents experienced. If you had a tough childhood, perhaps with an absent or unsupportive parent, you might want to course-correct when you have children of your own. "They may have wished their own parents were more involved with their school performance or activities," she says.

Social Pressure to Succeed

Board-certified behavior analyst Holly Blanc Moses, MS, BCBA, LCMHC, LPA, ADHD-CCSP, ASDCS, of Crossvine Clinical Group, notes that some people end up employing this parenting style because they feel pressure to succeed as a parent and for their kids to succeed. "All parents want their children to be safe, happy, and loved," she says. Because of the pressure for success, parents may put too many expectations on their kids.

Dr. Reynolds adds, "This is unrealistic, but parents frequently think if their child is not doing well at something, it is a reflection on them as parents." This may cause stress and possibly resentment in their children.

Wanting to Help

Wanting to feel needed can lead to difficulty letting kids move toward independence. There also are some parents who are extra worried about their children getting hurt—both emotionally and physically. Because of this, they may be inclined to closely monitor their children, says Moses. Some parents believe that never experiencing failure or disappointment is better than actually going through these life experiences and feeling let down.

While helicopter parenting isn't always a bad thing, particularly when not taken to the extreme, experts caution that this parenting style could potentially be problematic for your children in the long run. Find out some of the signs of helicopter parenting and what experts recommend parents do to encourage independence in their children while still keeping them safe.

Signs of Helicopter Parenting

Most people identify helicopter parents by their overprotective or overinvolved tendencies. But this definition can sometimes be too limiting. These parents are the ones who are always on top of things but to an extreme.

From infancy to college, helicopter parents tend to be overly involved in their kids' lives to the point where their own activities and interests take a back seat. This means the family budget also revolves around what the kids need or want.

They may even put their personal goals and career aspirations on hold in favor of what they think is best for their children.

There are different aspects to helicopter parenting, though. In some cases, these parents put too much pressure on their children to succeed in school or activities. In other cases, they shield their children from certain topics and do tasks for them. Helicopter parenting doesn't look the same in every household.

Likewise, helicopter parents have a tendency to over-schedule their kids in an effort to give them a competitive edge in everything from school to sports to music. They may even try to manage their child's friendships and social standing. The goal is to create every opportunity for their kids that they can.

Overall, helicopter parents tend to be proud to be so involved in their kids' lives and often don't see anything wrong with their parenting style. They see their actions as a way to show their love and ensure their child's safety while helping them be successful in the world.

Positives of Helicopter Parenting

While the term helicopter parent is often used in a derogatory manner, helicopter parenting isn't all bad. You can usually count on the children of helicopter parents to arrive on time, have their homework done, and be prepared for their activities. Their children tend to get lots of support and guidance with whatever is going on in their lives.

Helicopter parents of younger children and teenagers also are likely to know where their kids are at all times, which is an important safety consideration.

Likewise, helicopter parents tend to be very aware of who their child is with and how their child is doing in school. And, if their child is struggling in school or has dropping grades, they will do what they can to support them. The same is true when it comes to illnesses, bullying issues, or mental health concerns. Helicopter parents will work tirelessly to make sure these issues are addressed.

Additionally, helicopter parents tend to be involved parents who are the first to volunteer for school functions or join the PTA at school. For this reason, schools, teachers, and coaches can benefit from the amount of time, energy, and money they devote to making the school, the classroom, or the team the best it can be.

Potential Drawbacks of Helicopter Parenting

Being super involved in kids' lives can be harmful, though. Kids can start to feel suffocated and apathetic. They also may struggle with autonomy and independence. Here are some of the main drawbacks of helicopter parenting.

Inhibits Problem-Solving Skills

Kids of all ages need problem-solving skills. Whether you have a 5-year-old who needs to learn how to sound out words or a 25-year-old who can’t find a job, kids need to know how to tackle their own issues and proactively solve them on their own. Hovering parents, however, often intervene at the first sign of trouble, such that kids don’t learn valuable problem-solving skills.

Leads to Dependence on Parents

Helicopter parents do so much for their kids that it can make their kids dependent upon them. If a mother calls her 19-year-old to wake them up each morning to ensure they get to class on time, they won’t learn how to do this for themself. Parents should be helping kids learn how to survive and thrive without them.

Hinders Self-Advocacy

Helicopter parents usually advocate for their children, rather than teaching their children to advocate for themselves. It’s important for kids to be able to ask questions, gain clarification, and speak up when they need something. At school or in the workforce, these kids won’t have a parent available to help them deal with a challenging assignment or boss.

Fosters Low Self-Esteem

Having a parent constantly watching over everything you do can make children feel like they can never do anything right. This could lead to self-esteem issues as they grow up if the helicopter parenting and micromanaging continue into the teenage years and early adulthood. "Helicopter parenting can contribute to challenges with self-esteem, problem-solving, coping, decision making, social interaction, responsibility, and adaptive functioning," Moses says.

Prevents Natural Consequences

Kids need to face some natural consequences in life. After all, in situations where parents don’t intervene, kids are going to face consequences when they fail. Yet, most helicopter parents micromanage their children's activities in an attempt to prevent them from receiving any negative consequences.

Impacts the Parent-Child Relationship

While helicopter parenting is typically done out of love, this parenting style may interfere with the parent-child relationship. If your child feels you are constantly nagging them to get their homework done, making decisions for them, or checking up on their every move, they're unlikely to feel positive about your interactions. Instead, doing so may push your child away and lead them to question if you trust their judgment and abilities.

However, sometimes helicopter parenting does bring children and parents close together. If children don't feel stunted by having a parent micromanage them, they may feel grateful for this constant push to succeed.

"Children of helicopter parents may feel a deep connection to their parents and feel cared for," Dr. Reynolds says. "They may also feel like they have someone to go to who will help them deal with problems that arise."

How to Encourage Autonomy

If you tend to be a bit of a helicopter parent, it's important to consider if you should back off a bit to ensure you're giving your child room to grow, learn new skills, and rebound from failure on their own. Giving up that control, however, may be anxiety-provoking.

If you're having difficulty tolerating the stress or worry you feel when you allow your child to engage in age-appropriate activities on their own, talk to a professional. Allowing your child to make mistakes, suffer natural consequences, experience heartache, and solve their own problems are important aspects of growing and learning.

Keep in mind you don't have to back off completely all at once. In fact, it may be best for you and your child if you back off slowly. Give them time, space, and an appropriate level of support while they build up the skills they'll need to become more independent.

Whether your child is going to walk to the store on their own or they want to work on their science fair project alone, give them a little bit of freedom one step at a time. Coach them from time to time, help them brainstorm solutions, and review with them how they did when they're finished. But try to avoid standing over them while they're working—or worse yet, doing the work for them.

"Learning to fail and bounce back while parents are around to support them will help children build these skills when their parents are not close by," says Dr. Reynolds.

While not all elements of helicopter parenting are bad, it can have negative outcomes for children as it may hinder their ability to be independent. Here are a few ways you can go about encouraging autonomy in your children.

Let Your Kids Fail

Failing isn't fun, but it's a lesson learned. Whether it's in school, in an activity, or in a sport, failure is all part of the growing process, and letting your kids experience failure won't derail them for life. In fact, failure teaches important skills.

"These small failures and disappointments teach children resiliency skills and help them learn to cope with hard emotions," Dr. Reynolds says. "Although it may be hard for parents to see their children experiencing difficult emotions, it helps children realize that the emotions are temporary and that they can handle them. Getting through hard things helps children build the confidence that they need to be able to handle other hard things in the future."

Encourage Communication

If you teach your children early on that being open with you is OK, they're more likely to tell you what they need, says Moses, adding that they're also more likely to tell you if you're doing too much. "Encourage them to communicate thoughts and feelings by using helpful prompts," Moses says. "For example, 'I like [blank] because [blank]' and 'I feel [blank] because [blank].'" She suggests following this up by thanking them for sharing with you to reaffirm that communication is important.

Give Them Chores

Part of childhood for many families is learning life skills that will help kids as adults. If you're always doing everything for your kids, they probably won't learn these skills, which can make independence hard. Starting at a young age, give your kids chores, Moses says. These can be as simple as doing the dishes after dinner or making their bed every morning. You can expand on them as your kids get older, continuing to teach them how to be independent.

Encourage Using a Planner

Moses advises parents to have their kids start a planner when they're young so they get used to managing their day. Even if your elementary-age kids are only writing down playdates or friends' birthdays, it'll get them into a routine of keeping track of their own schedules and reminders. As your kids grow up, they can continue building out a weekly or yearly planner with sports practices, school meetings, part-time jobs, and more.

Other Styles of Parenting

When considering helicopter parenting, it's helpful to understand the main different types of parenting. The field of psychology often references four main types of parenting styles: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and neglectful. Experts like the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend an authoritative parenting style that uses consistent boundaries and expectations combined with being nurturing, caring, and responsive.

However, popular media also recognizes several subtypes of parents, which often reflect generational differences in parenting. In addition to helicopter parents, other common subtypes are free-range parents, lawnmower parents, and tiger parents.

Free-range parents tend to be a bit permissive. They allow their kids the freedom to make mistakes, explore, and try new things without much guidance. They believe kids can learn problem-solving skills through trial and error, and they're convinced natural consequences are some of life's best teachers.

Lawnmower parents are on the other end of the spectrum. They're known for mowing down all the obstacles that threaten their child's chances of success. They may go to great lengths to prevent their kids from experiencing uncomfortable challenges.

Meanwhile, tiger parenting became a popular term after Amy Chua's book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," became a bestseller. Tiger parents push their kids to succeed with strict rules and a regimented lifestyle that emphasizes hard work over fun.

Here's an example of how parents in each parenting style might respond to a child's request to walk to the store alone.

  • Helicopter parent: "Sure, I'll walk behind you the whole way to make sure you stay safe."
  • Free-range parent: "Sure. Can you pick up some milk while you're there?"
  • Lawnmower parent: "Sure, I'll walk ahead of you and make sure it's safe. I'll tell you when it's safe to cross the road."
  • Tiger parent: "No, you need to practice your violin for another hour."

A Word From Verywell

Just like everything in life, there is no one right or best way to parent a child. Likewise, helicopter parenting isn't all bad—or all good. Additionally, different aspects of various parenting styles will work better than others for individual families and children. Essentially, parents should consider the impact and values behind multiple parenting strategies, and then use the ones that feel right to them.

Encouraging autonomy in your children, while still guiding and supporting them, can help teach them valuable life skills and how to be independent.

11 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Hedy Phillips
Hedy Phillips is a freelance writer with more than 10 years of experience covering topics ranging from parenting tips to lifestyle hacks.

Updated by
Sarah Vanbuskirk
Sarah Vanbuskirk

Sarah Vanbuskirk is a writer and editor with 20 years of experience covering parenting, health, wellness, lifestyle, and family-related topics. Her work has been published in numerous magazines, newspapers, and websites, including Activity Connection, Glamour, PDX Parent, Self, TripSavvy, Marie Claire, and TimeOut NY.

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