Helicopter Parents, Hothouse Kids, Anxiety and Failure

We all know at least one set of helicopter parents. This species is closely related to the lawn-mower parent. The key difference may be in the level of obnoxiousness and omnipresent “fixing.”

While both species are annoying, neither is really helping their kids. Up until now, pretty much anyone with a working brain knew that was true. Now, science is taking a closer look at the ramifications for the kids involved and the dynamics of the families. That closer look seems to be revealing even more negatives for the helicopter parenting relationships.

When you talk to helicopter parents, they love to talk about how their overbearing manner and omnipresence in their kids’ lives is all about their children. But according to West Virginia University associate professor of child development and family studies Kristin Moilanen , these parents are really seeking personal reward and satisfaction.

Moilanen observed that the helicopter parenting problem seems most prevalent in middle- to upper-class families. In these families and their social circles, achievement among both parents and kids is critical to social station. Parents have a large measure of direct control over their own success. That of their children has been less controllable and hence, less certain. At least, that’s how it used to be.

Because the social stakes are high, something had to change. Enter the helicopter parent. More than just interference in their children’s lives, helicopter parenting literally puts the parent in the middle of every imaginable situation in which life skills might be developed – if the child were allowed to experience and then reflect on the situation.

Moilanen’s research focuses on young adults, aged 18 to 24 years old, who’ve experienced high levels of helicopter parenting. She has found that this kind of intense control of all factors of a child’s life steals some essential skills from them. She believes helicopter parenting results in “low mastery, self-regulation and social competence.”

“Unfortunately, I think the term for those children is ‘hothouse children,'” Moilanen said. “I think they’ve been raised to be these sort of delicate flowers under these very well-controlled conditions and — just like a tropical plant — they’re vulnerable whenever those conditions are exceeded, which is a scary thought.”

A very public example of this type of parenting is the recent college admissions scandal that led to Hollywood actresses and well-heeled business people being arrested on fraud and other charges. High-profile universities were bribed, admissions test scores were falsified and false athletic profiles created to cheat the system and gain admission for children of the wealthy and powerful who might not otherwise have been able to get in to those schools. Helicopter parenting gone terribly wrong, to say the least.

“Their stakes were different than, maybe for average people, but maybe [the fear was] they wouldn’t have access to the spotlight or that the college wouldn’t be prestigious enough, maybe that it wouldn’t be in keeping with their lifestyle they were accustomed to,” Moilanen said.

This kind of uber-controlling helicopter parenting is done to satisfy the emotional and social needs of the parent, in spite of claims of “doing it all for the children.” If mommy and daddy want a doctor or lawyer in the family in order to highlight what great parents they are, the child’s desire to be a plumber, teacher or baker will be thwarted without regard to the psychological consequences.

The damage to the kids goes way beyond resentment and irritation at the intrusion and interference. Moilanen says the children who are victims of this parenting will take their parents decisions and actions to heart. It all leads to undermining the child’s decision-making skills, ability to self-regulate and their sense of self-concept. Social and work acclimation are undermined and success in real society is far more unlikely.

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According to Moilanen, when students who’ve had their college and career path chosen for them arrive at college, they are beyond ill-prepared. With their parents financially staked in their college success, these kids are carrying a burden they simply don’t know how to deal with. Too often, they will manage the pressure with drinking, drugs or other behaviors that remain hidden from the parents until it’s too late.

“It can get messy for those kids really fast,” she said. “In a sense, they get caught between their parents’ desires, even if [the child] knows what’s best for themselves.”

When mommy and daddy step in to solve their child’s problem before the opportunity to learn for themselves and gain valuable life skills, it’s the kids who suffer. They miss out on the chance to figure out problems for themselves. Worse, the continued lack of autonomy has other unwanted and damaging side effects.

Hothouse children often experience heightened anxiety and the internalization of problems. They also tend toward the belief that they just can’t live independently and begin to believe that their outcomes are largely driven by forces they can’t control and are beyond their own ability to make decisions and take action, according to Moilanen.

She said that while some of these kids may require extra oversight, this varies from family to family and even on a child-by-child basis. Also, she said, “most kids turn out just fine and learn to ‘adult’ on their own.”

There’s no research yet that shows what kind of parents these “hothouse children” are or will be, Moilanen said.

“We do know that people tend to repeat the parenting that they receive, so I would say the chances are good that those children who were raised by helicopter parents would probably act in kind,” she said.

Children who are allowed to experience the world without a helicopter-driven safety net will grow up more resilient and better able to control themselves and make rational decisions about their lives. In other words, if we let them stub their toes in the dark occasionally, they’ll learn on their own when it is they need to turn the light on.

This world needs more children who grow up resilient, strong, rational and wise. So put the helicopters away and let the children experience life – the good, the bad and the ugly!

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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Journal Reference – Kristin L. Moilanen, Mary Lynn Manuel. Helicopter Parenting and Adjustment Outcomes in Young Adulthood: A Consideration of the Mediating Roles of Mastery and Self-Regulation. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 2019

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