Parents who describe themselves, or who are described disparagingly by others, as “helicopter parents” might think their overly-protective parenting style helps their children cope with this crazy world. A study published recently in Developmental Psychology found that parental hovering actually impairs children’s ability to self-regulate their emotions and behavior, which is an important skill that is developed in early childhood:
“Our research showed that children with helicopter parents may be less able to deal with the challenging demands of growing up, especially with navigating the complex school environment,” said Nicole B. Perry, PhD, from the University of Minnesota, and lead author of the study. “Children who cannot regulate their emotions and behavior effectively are more likely to act out in the classroom, to have a harder time making friends and to struggle in school.”
422 children were enrolled for the study at 2 years of age, when maternal behavior was first assessed:
“Helicopter parenting behavior we saw included parents constantly guiding their child by telling him or her what to play with, how to play with a toy, how to clean up after playtime and being too strict or demanding,” said Perry. “The kids reacted in a variety of ways. Some became defiant, others were apathetic and some showed frustration.”
Problems in school and emotional problems were assessed at ages 5 and 10 using self-reporting from the children as well as reporting from teachers:
Overcontrolling parenting when a child was 2 was associated with poorer emotional and behavioral regulation at age 5, the researchers found. Conversely, the greater a child’s emotional regulation at age 5, the less likely he or she was to have emotional problems and the more likely he or she was to have better social skills and be more productive in school at age 10. Similarly, by age 10, children with better impulse control were less likely to experience emotional and social problems and were more likely to do better in school.“
Children who developed the ability to effectively calm themselves during distressing situations and to conduct themselves appropriately had an easier time adjusting to the increasingly difficult demands of preadolescent school environments,” said Perry. “Our findings underscore the importance of educating often well-intentioned parents about supporting children’s autonomy with handling emotional challenges.”
Grounding the helicopter doesn’t mean that parents should withdraw or minimize their parental responsibilities to protect their children from potential harm. On the contrary, their involvement — in fact, their very presence — is critical in helping children find their social comfort zones:
Children rely on caregivers for guidance and understanding of their emotions. They need parents who are sensitive to their needs, who recognize when they are capable of managing a situation and who will guide them when emotional situations become too challenging. This helps children develop the ability to handle challenging situations on their own as they grow up, and leads to better mental and physical health, healthier social relationships and academic success. Managing emotions and behavior are fundamental skills that all children need to learn and overcontrolling parenting can limits those opportunities, according to Perry.
In real life, there is a fine line between being engaged in every aspect of a young child’s life, which is admirable and advised, and intervening in every aspect. But this study shows that in trying to make life easier for our kids, we often make things more difficult.
Read how colleges handle helicopter parents here.