Helicopter Parents and Anxiety!

Published Categorized as A look at one emotion, anxiety, coping strategies

I first learnt the term, ‘helicopter parents’ in the noughties in an article that was about how universities no longer pitched their marketing at potential new undergrads, but instead aimed it at their parents, as they were the ones making all the decisions. I hadn’t noticed this shift before then, but subsequently, started to notice quite clearly how we were far more involved in our children’s problems and decisions than our parents’ generation were.

This seems like a good thing yes?

Well of course it’s great that we want to help our children navigate life as it’s certainly not always easy is it (rhetorical mark). It’s fantastic that we can use our greater wisdom and knowledge to provide shortcuts that prevent our children from having to put the effort in to master things from scratch.  However, there has been a detrimental effect that is starting to be well-noticed and documented: increased anxiety.

What is obvious from hindsight (oh that smug beast!), is that if our children are never left to sort things out for themselves, they start to believe they can’t do things without help. More importantly, they also don’t get to prove to themselves that they can be self-reliant and solve their own problems. This is what our relatively ‘hands-off’ parents left us with – a belief we could cope – albeit in a rough-knocks-of-life way as they sometimes left us completely unsupported. The upshot is that our children’s anxiety increases as a result of this approach, as we are far more prone to anxiety when we assume won’t cope when new situations present themselves. What seems like a totally benevolent way of parenting, actually has a really unhelpful side-effect.

Another approach that ‘our’ older parents commonly used was to just tell us what to do and threaten us if we didn’t. This authoritarian approach might have cut-to-the-chase but it left children resenting or fearful of their parents and certainly didn’t help maintain positive relationships.

So what is a better approach?

A far better approach is to equip our children to cope for themselves and to do this we need to start by recognising the problems and situations in our children’s lives that are not really anything to do with us: like falling out with a friend, being told off for forgetting their homework or, indeed, choosing which university they’d like to go to! These are the problems said ‘helicopter parents’ jump in and do their best to sort out for their children. Once these problems have been identified as not really a parents’ domain, the next step is to help your child work out what they want or need to do. And to do this simply involves active listening – of the person-centred skills kind. (Of course, it’s helpful for parents to provide any relevant information, but to step in and sort out everything doesn’t always serve your child well in the long run.)

Active listening is actually a skill that if everyone developed, would undoubtedly make the world a better place! Counsellors take years to master it. However, there are some basic principles that the untrained can apply and those are of:

  1. Understanding that the person who ‘owns’ the problem is best placed to solve the problem (assuming it’s not something that is physically impossible: such as an 8 year old needing a lift somewhere – not that kind of problem!)
  2. Letting the person with the problem speak in a way that makes them feel really listened to. In very basic terms you need to be very ‘present’ for your child while they speak about their problem. ‘I see’, ‘uh ha’ and other encouraging noises can help your child feel like they are being listened to. But even more effective listening pulls out what your child is probably feeling – as indicated by what they are saying. For example, if a child says, ‘I hate playtimes because I have no one to play with,’ you can simply state, ‘so you’re feeling lonely and left out at playtimes’ and your child will feel so listened to and empathised with, they will be encouraged to continue their exploration of their problem.
  3. Accept, without judgement, that the situation and associated feelings are completely true for your child. Judgements can inhibit your child’s willingness to talk to you about problems.
  4. Keep in mind that you really value the idea of your child sorting out their own problem and hold a belief in their capability to do so – even if it takes a while.
  5. Active listening resists the temptation to provide solutions. As parents we nearly always have a solution to offer and sometimes it might be helpful in the short-term. But far more helpful, and long-term, is the process of allowing your child to sort out their own problems.

Of course, this approach deviates from those we were brought up with and those most prevalently ‘out there’. It takes a shift in mindset but will ultimately reduce your child’s anxiety and give them a far greater ‘can do’ attitude!