Helicopter Parenting May Inhibit Skill Crucial to School Success
Kids with overinvolved parents are less able to self-regulate.
Highly involved, intensively hands-on parenting is often pursued as a method of preparing kids for achievement and excellence. But a new study has found that it can actually inhibit in kids a skill critical to school and social success: self-control.
“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,” says Nicole B. Perry, PhD, from the University of Minnesota.
Perry’s study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, looked into the social and emotional development of children raised by hovering parents. In the study, parents and kids were asked to play as they would at home.
“The kids reacted in a variety of ways” to parents’ control and intervention, Perry says. “Some became defiant, others were apathetic and some showed frustration.”
In addition to lab observations, data were collected from teacher reports and self-reports from the 10-year-olds. Perry’s team found overcontrolling parenting of children at age 2 predicted poorer self-regulation of emotions and behavior in the same children at age 5.
Self-regulation is widely recognized by experts as a skill critical to learning, which might explain the rest of the team’s findings: The better a child was able to regulate their emotions at age 5, the less likely they were to have emotional problems and the more likely they were 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.
“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,” Perry says. “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.”
Children need parents and caregivers who are sensitive to their needs and recognize when they are capable of managing a situation and when they the need guidance because an emotional situation is 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. Related research has linked helicopter parenting to mental health struggles in young adults.
“Our findings underscore the importance of educating often well-intentioned parents about supporting children’s autonomy with handling emotional challenges,” Perry says.
Cultural norms around academic performance and family life may make Indian families prone to this kind of over-involved parenting style, which has many permutations and names, such as helicopter parenting, or enmeshed parenting. “Our tradition of joint family living can make Indian families particularly vulnerable to enmeshed parenting, as the arrangement can enable too-close involvement and control over children’s lives long into adulthood,” psychologist Sonali Gupta wrote in a 2016 article for The Swaddle.
Perry suggests parents can help their children learn to control their emotions and behavior by talking with them about how to understand their feelings and by explaining what behaviors may result from feeling certain emotions, as well as the consequences of different responses. Then parents can help their children identify positive coping strategies, like deep breathing, listening to music, coloring or retreating to a quiet space.
“Parents can also set good examples for their children by using positive coping strategies to manage their own emotions and behavior when upset,” she adds.