What Is Helicopter Parenting?

Potential Symptoms of Helicopter Parenting - Illustration by Madelyn Goodnight

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

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It's a natural feeling to want to protect your children. It's also natural to have a 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.

If you had a tough childhood, perhaps with an absent parent, you might want to course-correct when you have children of your own. If you felt like you didn't get attention as a child, you might want to be sure your own children don't feel that way. These scenarios and more can contribute to what's known as helicopter parenting.

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

What Is Helicopter Parenting?

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

"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."

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.

Causes of Helicopter Parenting

There are a number of reasons a parent might end up hovering over their children so closely. Sometimes parents don't even realize they're doing it because it's an unconscious act they're taking part in. Experts share some of the top reasons that could cause this parenting style.

Desire to Provide a Different Childhood

Dr. Reynolds suggests that one primary reason for helicopter parenting is the simple desire to give children a childhood unlike what they themselves experiences. "They may have wished their own parents were more involved with their school performance or activities," she says.

It could also be more extreme than that. Parents who were abandoned as children may try to overcompensate and stick closely with their children through everything. That way their child doesn't ever have to worry about being alone.

Social Pressure to Succeed

Board-certified behavior analyst Holly Blanc Moses, MS, BCBA, LCMHC, LPA, ADHD-CCSP, ASDCS, of Crossvine Clinical Group, notes that 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 much pressure 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."

Instinct to Protect

There 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, Moses says. Some parents believe that never experiencing failure or disappointment is better than actually going through these life experiences and feeling let down.

Effects of Helicopter Parenting

Though parents may think being overprotective will shield their children from hurt or failure or help them succeed, it can actually have detrimental effects. This parenting style can be suffocating for some children, experts say, and could cause backlash. However, not all effects are negative.

Close Connection With Parents

One positive aspect of helicopter parenting is that it brings 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."

Low Self-Esteem

On the flip side, 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.

Poorly Developed Life Skills

Helicopter parenting may involve parents doing things for their children or guiding them so closely that the kids never learn on their own. Dr. Reynolds points out that when parents are always doing tasks for their children, the children grow up not knowing how to take care of themselves properly, leading to poorly developed life skills and an unrealistic dependency on their parents. She also points to an inability to resolve conflicts as a related detriment.

How to Encourage Autonomy

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. Though it may not be easy to take a step back, experts recommend doing so, for the benefit of your children. There are a few ways you can go about encouraging autonomy in your children.

Michelle Reynolds, PhD

"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."

— Michelle Reynolds, PhD

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.

"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. 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."

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, Moses suggests, 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.

A Word From Verywell

How you choose to parent may be influenced by a number of factors, from how you were raised to your child's individual needs. However, as much as you may want to hover over your children, experts caution against a helicopter parenting style. While this parenting style can have some positive effects, it potentially comes with lasting negative effects, too. Encouraging autonomy in your children, while still guiding and supporting them, can help teach them valuable life skills and how to be independent.

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3 Sources
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