Grounding your Helicopter Parent: 7 Questions To Ask Yourself When You Are Tempted to Intervene
There is a fine line between being a concerned and supportive parent and being a helicopter parent.
I know that struggle to walk along that line, and I see so many caring parents trying to navigate it as well. Let’s face it: it’s really hard to see our kids in pain.
But it’s also hard to find the delicate balance of letting our children grow from learning difficult life lessons and being accountable for logical consequences while being aware that not only is it appropriate but necessary to intervene on behalf of our children if we sense that they are self-destructive, in danger or being treated unfairly or abusively by another.
Here are some questions that help me when I am wondering if I am being a helicopter parent or just being a parent.
- Who is upset in this situation: me or my child? You are outraged that your child was not moved up a level, is not in the starting line up or is not placed in the top reading group. But what is your child’s reaction? Sometimes they too are upset about their placement. But sometimes they are upset about your upset and quietly relieved that they don’t have to try to perform above where they feel capable. And still other times, they are completely fine with the whole situation. Remember: simply being upset is not a reason to intervene. Strong emotions give us useful information but are not the sole determinant in how we need to react or if we need to react at all. Just because we feel outrage does not mean an injustice has occurred.
- Is my child in serious physical, emotional or psychological danger? There is a difference between a discomfort and despair. A scraped knee, a hurt feeling from being excluded from a party or an uncomfortable interaction with a peer, coach or teacher who behaved in an unkind or unfair manner are opportunities for you to coach your child how to cope and, if appropriate, confront and correct. On the other hand, if the physical danger is grave or your child is demonstrating signs of deep and serious emotional or psychological stress, then it is your duty to intervene to protect your child. Sometimes it can be difficult to discern between the two. Some good indications that it is time to intervene include: extreme mood changes or personality changes (i.e. your normally chatty child become quiet), disruptions in sleep or eating, excessive crying, loss of interest in things that once important and isolation from friends.
- Can my child handle this herself? If not, what skills does my child need to handle this in the future? How can I help my child develop these skills? If you determine that your child can and is able to handle the problem solo, great, please let them do it. You may help them by role playing what they will say in advance and you might even be nearby to help coach them through it, but the key is to let them do as much self-advocating as possible. If your child is unable to cope but developmentally should be able to do so, it is your role as the parent to help your child develop these skills. Teaching things like conflict resolution, how to speak with I-statements, how to state a concern and listen to feedback and how to set appropriate boundaries are all crucial to your child’s long-term success. Conflict gives your child the opportunity to hone these important skills. Guiding your child through the process of decision making skills and conflict resolution can be tedious and it is tempting to just do it for them, please don’t.
- Is there a difference in power between my child and the person/people causing her problem? Power imbalance is often a cue that you need to pay close attention to the distress your child is signaling. If your child states that a teacher or coach doesn’t like them, don’t immediately accept it as truth but don’t dismiss it either. Try getting clarification from the child by using a concerned but neutral tone. Listen to what your child says and note if a pattern emerges. Sometimes casually asking other parents if their child has expressed any concerns regarding the teacher or coach will yield useful information.
- Do I need to intervene immediately or can it wait? It’s amazing what a night’s sleep or a week away from the problem can do to give everyone more perspective. When emotions are high, our parental grizzly bear gets thrown into overdrive and we don’t always make the best decisions. Taking some space to let emotions settle often results in no need to intervene or at least allows us to do so in a more rational and respectful manner. It allows us to hear our child’s concerns and to gather more information that might be useful in our decision and tactics in helping the child or advocating on his/her behalf.
- What does my child think? If she is old enough, ask your child what he or she would like your role to be. You still reserve the right to intervene or not, but getting feed back from your child is important. I prefer to try to wait until my child is not emotionally charged to ask the question, as quite often the storm will have blown over.
- Am I parenting from a place of fear? Being a good parent goes hand in hand with feeling worried and concerned with our children’s well-being. But it is important to keep fear in check when we are parenting. If we are constantly convinced that the world is a dangerous place and that it is our job to protect our child or that it is our job to ensure our child’s happiness and success, then we are likely to be sitting in the pilot seat of our own helicopter. Keeping our eye on the big picture of the goal of parenting is key: to raise adults who are capable of being good members of society. There are plenty of people who grew up to be incredibly successful and happy who weren’t starters for the team, didn’t get the lead in the musical or even who were not admitted to their first choice college.
I am hardly perfect. I own my own helicopter and more often than I should I find myself in the pilot’s seat. But by constantly reminding myself that the goal of parenting is not to create a perfect childhood, free of conflict, disappointment or distress but instead to help my children grow up to be resilient people who are capable of advocating for themselves, I am able to keep myself from spinning the propellers…well, at least most of the time!