How helicopter parenting leads to tantrums

Some of the parents I work with are worried about becoming the dreaded helicopter parent– described in the media and in research as a parent who hovers constantly over their child, overprotecting the child to the point of hindering the child’s growth and development.  

The parents I know are warm and loving with their children.  They are engaged, they care deeply, and they want the best for their children.  And they KNOW, without a doubt, that this is right.  But they’re not sure how to avoid becoming a helicopter parent.  They don’t want to parent in a way that cripples their child.

Helicopter parenting can easily begin in the first few years—and then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  This can happen if you don’t stay alert to the work your young child is focused on. Babies’ work includes developing coordination to bring things to themselves and get themselves to things. When they are working at this, let them!

Sometimes you can help by moving something closer.  But, if you pick it up and take it to them, when it’s possible for them to extend themselves and reach it, you’re disempowering them and interrupting their work. Similarly, if you were to pick them up every time they try to walk, you would be slowing their progress at learning to walk.  

After the first few months, parents must become increasingly alert to the work the young child is focused on– and let the child do that work.

When parents persist with the feeling that “I have to do everything for my baby because she can’t do anything for herself,” and fail to notice what their child is trying to work on, they end up doing too much for the child.  This frustrates the child’s natural learning drives and, over time the child will increasingly push back and fight to do things himself.  

When the child pushes back against your “help,” it’s the parent or caregiver’s job to recognize that it is very healthy that your child wants to do as much for themselves as they can, and your child will develop important skills by doing so.  And it’s your job to work on your skills at two-way communication and listen for understanding.  

Miscommunications occur a lot between parents and toddlers, as I observed many times at the Montessori school I directed.  I loved to witness the happy reunions between parents and young children at the end of the day.  They were excited to see each other at the end of the day and to be going home together.  But, so often, everything would go awry as soon as the parent started putting on the child’s coat or shoes.  The child would throw a fit and the parent would be perplexed and frustrated.  I knew that parents were tired and hungry, ready to get home, get dinner, and do all the end of the day activities.  At least once each day, I would hear a frustrated parent say, accusingly “Do you want me to leave you here?

It was a big miscommunication between parent and child. The child was communicating “I want to do it!” and the parent wasn’t listening — and it led to a tantrum.  So many times, I heard the teacher tell the parent “she wants to put on her own shoes,” and the parent saying “she can’t put on her own shoes!”

“Actually,” the teacher would respond “she’s been doing it every day for weeks.”  

If we continue to do everything for them, when they are ready to try to do it themselves, they will generally respond in one of two ways: a) They will tantrum for greater independence and self-direction, which every human being wants; or b) they will become passive and helpless, which will perpetuate their immaturity and drive a continual need for adult direction and approval.  

If you want to avoid becoming a helicopter parent and, instead, develop great two-way communication with your child and raise your child to be confident and capable, here are my first 2 pieces of advice:

  1. OBSERVE. Observe your young child, without bias, and seek to notice when your child is doing meaningful work.  Don’t feel you need to constantly control them.  The more they do their own active, self-directed work, the more they will learn and the happier and more capable they will be. 
  2. SIT!  Just because you can do the work better doesn’t mean you should do their work for them!  It’s their job to be building skill upon skill– and they love it.  Sit on your hands and let your child do the work!  Not only are they learning and developing important skills, they are also developing a sense of confidence that it’s worth trying and working at something that’s hard for them at first.  And that’s a million dollar lesson you can’t buy for them!

When you allow your young child to do more and more of his own work, you will be empowering your child to be increasingly capable and self-reliant.  And you will be building a parent-child relationship that will be the envy of everyone around!

Next time, I will share more about how where helicopter parenting comes from—and how you can avoid it.

Do you sometimes worry that your worrying attitude about your child is making you more controlling than you want to be?  That it’s not healthy for your child’s development, or for your relationship?

gt headshot pretty smile 2013Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., the Born for Brilliance Parent Coach

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