Let me begin by sharing two incidents from my personal life.
A mother accompanied her daughter to school on the first day of every school year. And once she dropped the daughter in her new class, had a word with the new teacher, she would go and speak to the school headmistress.
There she would wait for the assembly to get over and then insist on taking her daughter back home. The mother would insist on taking the daughter home simply because she believed the daughter would be feeling uncomfortable in the new class and would rather be in the safety of her home than attend the day at school. (The school always had a half-day on day one of the session)
The school allowed this to happen for a few years until the daughter reached grade 3. That year the headmistress and the school principal refused to let the student go early despite many requests.
Then the mother chose to sit and wait at the school reception till school got over to take the daughter home instead of letting her come back in the school bus. This was despite the daughter’s insistence that she enjoyed the first day at school and was perfectly okay with returning home in the school bus.
One day the mother of a 7-year-old girl picked her from her school bust stop. The child looked pretty upset and angry. On their way back home as the mother-daughter started talking, the girl narrated how a boy in her class had been picking on her for her long hair for a few days.
The girl had been reporting the matter to the class teacher. The teacher had spoken to the boy (who happened to be the headmaster’s child) but nothing had changed.
That afternoon the little girl was angry because the boy had not only pulled her hair but had even made fun of her for something she didn’t do.
The mother, after listening to the whole story, asked the daughter what she wanted to do next. To which the girl replied that she wanted to take care of the matter on her own.
While the mother was panic struck and really worried about what might follow, she decided to keep her fears in her heart.
The mother did talk openly about the many possible lines of action they could follow from here on. These included the parent approaching the class teacher or even the headmaster.
To this, the child very confidently replied that she had made up her mind to handle this on her own.
The following day, the daughter had a word with the school headmaster and confidently explained what had happened the previous day. The headmaster not only reassured that action will be taken but went ahead and made sure this wasn’t repeated again.
Both of these incidents happened in my family.
Looking back at them, I can strongly feel that how we parents raise our children, greatly impacts how our children turn out to be.
While every parent has the best interests of their children at heart, it can often get very difficult to stop ourselves from doing the things our children are capable of doing on their own.
Things that would teach them invaluable life lessons in the long run.
This is why I want to shine a light on a topic very close to my heart. Something that has defined my existence and how my life has turned out to be.
I was first introduced to the term ‘Helicopter Parent’ when I was still a non-parent.
At first, I chuckled at the idea.
I could almost visualise a mom flying a helicopter and hovering over her child everywhere the child went.
I was pretty sure that these parents had the best interests of their child at heart, just weren’t sure as to where to draw the line.
But it didn’t take me long to realise that I had actually experienced something similar in my own life.
What is Helicopter Parenting?
The term “helicopter parent” was first used in Dr Haim Ginott’s bestseller classic book Between Parents & Teenagers.
Helicopter parents hover over their children and swoop in at the first sign of trouble.
The term became so popular that it became a dictionary entry in 2011.
My parents, especially my mom would shadow my every move, every decision and would make changes suiting what she deemed best (often without my involvement)
She’d help me in my homework to going ahead and doing the work if I wasn’t excellent at it.
She’d select who I was friends with.
My mom was always the one who spoke for me to my teachers, friends and even extended family.
She would get very angry if any relative or family friend tried to correct my behaviour.
She would have me enrolled in a bunch of extra-curricular classes (dance, art, craft, needlework and more) all through my school vacations.
This was actually not limited to my childhood and has continued well into my adult life.
Though I had not much understanding of this until recently.
At that time, I didn’t see anything wrong about the idea that some parents were extra cautious, overly protective and super involved in their children’s lives.
Fast forward to the time when I became a parent.
As is natural, I took to parenting my child in ways I had been brought up.
And to be honest, I took immense pride in being the security blanket for my child.
My precious baby had my full support, guidance and undivided attention (well, that can be debatable) most of the time.
But somewhere down the line, when the life of being a single mom started overwhelming me, I deep dived into something every parent does.
To Google for a solution.
The search brought up a flood of educational articles and recommendations for books that other parents had found helpful.
Like every parent desperate to find a solution I bought several books, read through a sea of articles and actually found ways to solve many of my parenting woes.
But in the process, I noted one teeny-tiny piece of advice that kept popping in my face no matter how hard I tried to look away or past it.
I even stumbled upon a study published in 2013 that linked helicopter parenting to depression and anxiety in children.
All articles, including this study published in 2016 hinted that:
Being an authoritarian, over-controlling parent who shadowed every move of their child laid the foundation of lifetime anxiety, low self-esteem and incapability to handle stressful situations in adult life.
Though it was never said so bluntly.
Nor was it put out harshly.
But every time I read a version of it, I could see a hand pop out of the screen and point a finger at me.
Yup, my mind would scream out loud.
They’re talking about YOU. Listen.
And truth be told, I tried my best to shrug off the idea by immediately switching to another tab or the app as the case might be.
But that tiny little voice would linger in my head.
And inadvertently force me to look back at my own childhood and life for signs that would prove this advice wrong.
Every time I did this, that is to look back and analyse how my life had turned out, I could see clear signs of how my parents made my life super easy by doing everything I had to.
Hand-holding me every step of the way to even see me achieve many important accolades in life.
But in return for that super-secure, free from hardships childhood and early adult life I paid the price in a way I can clearly see today.
I grew up as an adult who had
♥ Zero self-confidence.
♥ Zilch or perhaps a negative figure for my self-esteem.
♥ Every achievement of my early life has always felt like given to me.
I have never felt that I earned any of these because of the involvement or rather the extent of my parents’ involvement in achieving them.
And it is in no way a figment of my imagination because my parents have left no opportunity to rub this fact into my psyche.
♥ I have had major issues taking care of my emotions. I have struggled because of the lack of self-regulation skills.
♥ At every step, I found myself ill-equipped to handle the failure of any and every kind.
♥ I have been a control freak in an attempt to get a handle on everything around me when things didn’t go as I would like them to.
♥ I have struggled with planning and leading a productive existence.
Simply because I was raised in a way where my days were planned ahead (without my involvement in the planning) and everything was simply told to me at the last minute.
Today as an adult, I have had a rough time battling procrastination and adopting a mindset that keeps me planning an effective and productive life.
These are a few of the many obstacles I have recognised from my own life.
I’m sure there must be many more aspects of this problem.
These few but major personal experiences were enough to keep me motivated to NOT become an over-controlling parent myself.
However, it is easier said than done.
We often end up becoming who we run from.
I was no different, because:
One, that was the only way of parenting I had seen and experienced in my life.
Two, I am constantly surrounded by parents (mine included) who express serious concern when I let my child freely make choices and often take risks.
I am not talking about letting my child indulging in any serious-risky behaviours or choosing to roller skate in the middle of the road.
But choosing which club she opts for at school, whether she wants to join the classical dance classes or not, which sports she participates are some of the many decisions I let my daughter make.
Though the final decision is always made after an open discussion with me I let my kid take the final call.
But let me tell you that this transition has been one of the biggest struggles I have had in my life as a parent.
This is because it is not about simply choosing to let my child have a say or the freedom of choice.
It is all about me developing enough emotional and mental strength to be able to objectively process the desire to be a controlling parent.
And that can be pretty difficult, confusing and alarmingly triggering.
The reasons why parents act in a controlling way
At the heart of all control is often the parent’s desire to keep their children safe and happy.
However, there exists a fine line between wanting the very best and trying to hijack every possible event in your child’s life.
As a helicopter parent who has been working hard to recover and change my ways, I believe parents act in controlling ways because of one or more of the following reasons:
♥ Feeling anxiety:
Worry about seeing your children hurt, sad or heartbroken can be one of the major reasons why parents try to control children’s experiences.
♥ Fear of dire consequences:
The fear of getting low grades, fear of seeing your child getting hurt (in a physical or emotional way) or the fear of seeing our child miss out on a golden opportunity can often trigger the feelings that as parents we could have done more. And that’s exactly what over-controlling parents try to curb.
♥ Overcompensating what the parents lacked in their own childhood:
Feeling of security. Being loved and take care of. Having parents pouring attention.
Any or all of these emotions can trigger parents to act in a controlling way.
♥ Pressure from fellow parents:
This has been a major contributor in my case.
As a single parent, I have always been bombarded with unsolicited advice from fellow parents and my own family to pay extra attention to my child’s needs and be extra vigilant about her.
This had inadvertently fanned my insecurities and helped me bloom into a helicopter parent.
Around the time when I was slowly making up my mind around stepping back from being an over-controlling parent, I read the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger mother by Amy Chua.
I could almost see myself in Amy, the tiger mom.
Needless to say, reading about Amy’s experiences and most importantly what unfolded between her and her daughters was the final blow that gave me the resolve to break free from helicopter parenting.
I was sure that I couldn’t be doing the very same things my parents did while raising me.
I was confident that I didn’t want to raise my daughter in a way that she grew up to suffer in ways as I have in my life.
Yes, I wanted to see my daughter safe, but not at the cost of her self-esteem.
Not by robbing her from developing the precious social and emotional skills that form the very foundation of every human experience and successful relationship.
What did unlearning Helicopter Parenting mean?
I had to work on reclaiming control over my own life to stop controlling everyone around me.
A lot of groundwork was needed.
The only way to get back control is by exercising personal responsibility.
I had to work at training my mind to stop blaming my past, my upbringing and my parents for what I did today.
I had to learn to take full responsibility for my choices, my actions as a parent.
I had to allow room for my own healing.
And that’s exactly where I began.
I couldn’t just wake up one morning and stop being an over-controlling parent.
It called for being curious about my own life and upbringing and asking myself “What am I seeking?”
An introspection into my beliefs and values.
To start looking inward and employing ways to create safety, self-regulate the internal (breathing, meditation, movement, counselling, etc.) instead of excessively needing to control the external.
I had to develop strong emotional skills to overcome my fears and anxiety.
I had to model ways of regulating my own emotions (fear, anger, disappointment) without reacting to them to help my child learn by example.
I had to learn to be okay to see my child fail.
I had to learn to be calm when I saw my daughter struggle.
I had to build my mental muscle while guiding my child to develop hers.
I had to stop myself from jumping in to solve all of my child’s problems. I had to let her work on them on her own at her pace.
I had to learn to not be driven by a feeling of guilt. To stop falling in the mom guilt trap and reacting to it.
I had to let go of nurturing the belief that my entire life revolved around my kid. I had to set reasonable boundaries and learn to respect them.
I had to learn to be brave. To let my child, step out of the protective bubble. In the real world. To learn the ways of life, I myself learnt the hard way.
I had to learn to let go of the thirst for perfection that could never be quenched. Learning to be more accepting of my imperfect self has been a huge relief both for me and my child.
I had to let myself and my child experience hurt, sadness, disappointment, anxiety and more without trying to find a quick fix.
To exist with discomfort and learn from the experience. It has been pretty challenging. And continues to be so.
I had to stop nagging my daughter over petty issues and above all worrying too much over small mistakes.
While I am far from done, I am proud to report that this life-changing transformation has brought along immense peace in my emotionally messed up life.
And that has been anything but easy.
Where am I right now?
It is the beginning of the annual exam season in my part of the world.
A time where I have to constantly keep myself in check.
The pressure of not crossing the fine line between encouraging my child to perform well and pushing her hard to score full marks has been overwhelming.
When your child has been a top grosser all along, the pressure from school teachers can often shake the foundations of newly-found self-control.
Slowly but surely, I’m getting there.
Faltering, struggling but not losing sight of the prize.
The prize of raising a mentally strong, confident, self-reliant child who’d be able to build a life guided by her own choices and free will.
As far as the exams, my daughter and I both are writing our own exams.
I cannot claim to have fully let go of all anxiety or thoughts of worst-case scenarios.
At least not yet.
I’m working on accepting reality.
Taking a few deep breaths and watching my little girl create the life she rightfully deserves.
And in case you’re wondering where do I fit in the two stories I narrated in the start.
In the first incident, I was the daughter who craved to be the boss of her life but never got to be one for close to 25 years of her early life.
As you might have guessed, I’m the mother in the second story who is slowly learning to let my child be free and be guided by her instincts.
While I keep reassuring Pari that I am always around, I want her to be the person who she was born to be.
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2 thoughts on “How Helicopter Parenting Can Impact a Child’s Life. Can It Be Unlearned?”
Wow! what an excellent read this was.
I was never a helicopter parent, but I most definitely was ‘too involved’. It took me a long time, and some straight advice from well meaning friends to get out of that and let my daughter go and follow her own path while staying on the side (just to keep an eye 😉 )
A very close friend once remarked that in some cultures, the kids don’t know how to deal with very basic stuff in life, and hence they struggle when they grow up.
My ex-boss also made a similar observation about Indians not being able to make independent decisions in workspace, and I feel a lot of it has got to do with the fact that they never got a chance to make trivial decisions when they were growing up.
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Thank you for sharing your experiences, Puja 🙂
What I today recognise as helicopter parenting on my mom’s part, is in fact quite a norm in the part of world I live in and even in my extended family.
It can be a very crippling feeling to have grown up in an overprotected environment, but I am learning the ropes of a confident existence. Albeit very slowly.
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