How Parents Can Get Out of the Helicopter Seat
You can’t read the daily news without encountering stories of school shootings, bullying, Amber alerts for child abductions, and news of fatal sports injuries. Despite efforts by schools to address bullying positively, we currently have government leaders who model name-calling, mockery, and marginalizing others as part of their daily conversation and tweets.
It’s enough to make any reasonable person unreasonably anxious. It makes already anxious parents want to wrap their kids in bubble wrap to eliminate all risks and keep them under their watchful eye, often winning for themselves a not complimentary term — “helicopter parents.”
Let’s be clear. If you’ve been accused of being a “helicopter parent,” it’s only because you want to protect your kids. You love them. You want to keep them safe in a world that feels increasingly hostile and unpredictable.
You aren’t wrong to be anxious. But carried too far, protection can be detrimental. Kids who are overprotected from risks are also “protected” from learning what they need to know if they are to protect themselves.
How to Get out of the Helicopter Seat
The key to making kids safe is not to eliminate risks but to build their resilience. Our job as parents is to give our kids the tools to keep themselves safe, not to do it for them. Here are some reminders to help you bring your helicopter in for a landing.
Keep things in perspective: News sources don’t emphasize the positive, so it’s easy to miss that things are getting better. Crime is down in the U.S., not up. The percent of kids who drop out of school is down. Smoking and illegal drug use by kids is also down. Teen pregnancy rates are down. Risky sexual behavior by teens is no worse than when we were all kids.
Deal with your own anxiety: Learn how to keep your anxiety away from the kids, so they don’t “catch it” from you. If you can’t do it on your own, do consider seeing a therapist to help you. You’ll learn new skills for managing your fears as well as ways to help your kids deal with difficult situations.
Self-reflect: Being young means encountering things you haven’t done before that may be a bit scary. Think about risks you did and didn’t take while growing up. What lessons were helpful? What not? It can be reassuring to remember that you survived and even learned valuable lessons from taking chances.
Do some reasonable scouting: without involving the kids. The parents of the kid who invited him for a sleepover may have rules similar to your own. That team your kids want to try out for may have a supportive coach. The field trip or dance your teen wants to go to may be well-supervised. Do your homework. If there is reasonable chance that your kids will be fine, respond to their requests with an enthusiastic “yes” instead of an automatic “no.”
Tell stories: Kids tune out from lectures. But they love to listen to stories about the “old days” when we were young. Sharing our experiences in risky situations with humility and some humor is often the best way to impart what wisdom we’ve got.
A Dad I know told his kids a story (complete with sound effects) about when he let some older kids who had a reputation for trouble talk him into going for a joy ride in a stolen car. Yes, they were caught by police. He was let off as a bystander but the experience taught him a lot about the importance of anticipating consequences — even when something seems exciting, even when the other kids are doing it. His kids got the point.
Teach decision making skills: Every activity has some element of risk, whether physical, social, or emotional. Instead of saying a simple yes or no, regularly engage your kids in conversations about whether the potential benefit of an activity is worth taking a chance by looking at pros and cons.
Say your youngster wants to play hockey. Yes, the risk of injury is real. So is the risk to self-esteem by not being very good at it. But equipment, good instruction, and a coach who knows how to motivate kids positively can make it safer and fun. Being part of a team can teach important skills of cooperation and good sportsmanship. Talk together about how to look at both sides to make a wise decision.
Teach exit strategies: Kids sometimes get into situations they want to get out of. Just like adults, kids are safer if they know how to control their impulsivity; how to gracefully leave a peer group that is doing something they shouldn’t; how to get help from the grown-ups when they need it. Don’t leave learning those skills to chance. Talk about them. Role play them. Tell more stories. Do remember that teens are more likely to call you when they need help if they know you will pick them up without judgment and save talking about it for later. The time to talk is when everyone has had time to calm down so you can have a rational conversation.
Give kids experience with risky situations: It’s tempting to want to change environments so kids can avoid all danger. Yes, playgrounds sometimes need repairs. Your kids’ school may have a bullying problem. Your child may not have the talent they think they have to be a star athlete. But avoiding playgrounds, keeping them out of school, or never letting them try out for a team doesn’t make kids safer. It hampers them. Better that they learn how to handle themselves. Celebrate moments when they’ve made good decisions and kept themselves safe. Debrief when they’ve stumbled. Teaching risk-management isn’t a “one and done” exercise. It’s an on-going educational conversation.
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). How Parents Can Get Out of the Helicopter Seat. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-parents-can-get-out-of-the-helicopter-seat/