Letting go of your inner helicopter parent

They can be found at the playground, the preschool classroom and the pool. But they can just as easily be spotted on high school football fields and in college dorm rooms.

The helicopter parent.

Hovering, this caregiver can't quite let go. And with good reason. The world can feel like a scary, out-of-control place for many moms and dads. We want to protect our kids and make sure they succeed in life. That means, sometimes we hold onto them just a bit too tight.

But while there may be understandable reasons for the rise of helicopter parent, there are also downsides. And it's important to strike a proper balance of keeping kids safe and giving them the skills to survive on their own.

For advice, we turned to Jamie Nordling, Ph.D., social developmental psychologist and assistant professor at Augustana College. She studies parent-child relationships and has been researching helicopter parents in college age kids.

Anecdotally, she has come in contact with plenty of young adults who can't make a decision without running it by mom and dad.

"Students have trouble making decisions without asking their parents," Jamie says. "Things like taking class or choosing a major."

Her research focuses on how helicopter parenting affects academic confidence, depression, risk-taking behavior, autonomy, social competence and more. And while there are many variables, there are some interesting findings.

"Broadly, helicopter parenting is leading to negative behaviors," Jamie explains. "When someone is always making decisions for you, when do you begin to make them for yourself?"

And don't think that means helicopter parenting is only a problem when kids are getting ready to leave the nest.

"It's the same pattern of behavior, whether the child is 2 or 20," Jamie says.

Here's what you need to know:

The origins of helicopter parenting

The term "helicopter parenting" is relatively recent. It generally refers to excessive over-involvement in a child's life, even when it's not necessary to do so.

When kids are little, it can be developmentally appropriate as a parent to "hover."

  • You likely wouldn't give your six-month old food she couldn't swallow.

  • You probably wouldn't let your one-year-old walk himself across a busy parking lot.

  • You likely wouldn't drop your three-year-old off at the city pool alone and hope for the best.

But as kids get older, it's a caregiver's job to help them develop autonomy and independence. This means letting young people make age-appropriate decisions and deal with the consequences of those decisions. It also means letting them manage tricky social relationships - they need to learn to negotiate, disagree and communicate with others.

And they need to do it without the intervention of a parent.

For some moms and dads, it's can be challenging to let go and allow kids make their own choices and mistakes. It can feel too hard to let them handle difficulties on their own. And this is especially the case when parents have been stepping in and taking care of problems for the child's life entire life.

The good intentions behind helicopter parenting

In most cases, helicopter parenting comes from a good place. Jamie explains that parents generally want what's best for a child and want to help their kids avoid mistakes, pain and failure.