By Tony Tramelli, MA, LPC

Helicopter parenting is a parenting style that describes the way many of our young 20-28 year olds (Generation Y) have been raised, and how many children in our society continue to be parented.  Helicopter parenting brings up images of smothering, doting, hovering, decision making, and problem solving.  Such parents never allow their children to experience failure or hardship, always saving them, never letting them fall.  But learning how to fail is oftentimes the best way to learn how to succeed.  When children feel the natural consequences of their behavior, they develop the resiliency necessary to succeed in this life.  Part of this success includes launching into young adulthood, a process made infinitely more difficult by having experienced helicopter parenting.

It has been said that one of the great sources of personal growth is suffering.  And, although watching our children suffer can be incredibly painful, it is essential to their growth.  Helicopter parenting usually comes from a place of love and concern, but it leaves young people ill-equipped to face the very real challenges and hardships that exist in this life.  Children reared with this type of parenting style may develop personality traits such as poor decision making skills, entitlement, fear of taking chances, low frustration threshold, emotional dysregulation, codependent relationship patterns, and learned helplessness.  This is why we so often see this generation of young adults moving home shortly after graduation, or never leaving at all, and helps explain why they have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and decreased satisfaction with life.
There have been several cultural shifts over the past few decades that have influenced this parenting style that has become the norm in so many of our families.  First, research suggests that many parents of Generation Y children are rejecting the parenting style with which they themselves were raised.  Oftentimes, these individuals had parents of their own who were distant and inattentive.  They decided that they were not going to be anything like their own parents.  Instead, they were going to make sure that their children had everything they wanted and never felt the pain and suffering they felt as children.  This is understandable.  There are oftentimes cultural pendulum swings from one generation to the next, but in this case the swing has gone much too far.
Another very obvious change in today’s world is the technology that is available to us. We are able to stay connected like never before, and it is so easy to go from being reasonably involved in our children’s lives to micromanaging every aspect of them.  This begins at a very young age.  We give our children cell phones in their elementary school years, and then we track every step they take throughout the day.  We check in on their grades daily via programs like PowerSchool, and make sure that they don’t miss one assignment.  If their grades are lacking, we email their teachers immediately asking “what can we do.”  We often blame the school for our children’s failures or even take on the responsibility ourselves.  We rarely put the responsibility squarely on the student, where it most certainly belongs.
As children get older, parents often become even more intimately involved in their children’s lives, specifically via social media, liking and commenting on every picture or status they post.  This is the behavior of a friend, not a parent.  Parents  should  certainly  be  aware  of  what  their  kids  are  doing  on social media,  but  this needs to be  done from a distance.  This intimate involvement influences parents to believe that their children are extensions of themselves, rather than separate and autonomous individuals responsible for their own lives.
As children begin their transition into adulthood, parents who have been so intimately involved for so long may have a hard time taking a step back.  They have raised children who are dependent on their over-involvement.  We see parents filling out college applications, registering for university classes, filling out roommate requests, contacting professors, and asking for the same updates on grades that were available to them during elementary and high school.
The same level of communication that was expected during childhood is expected during young adulthood as well.  Today, the weekly phone call home from college is a thing of the past.  Modern parents and college students communicate daily via text, email, social media, and phone calls.  Parents are oftentimes calling to make sure their college students get up for class on time, helping them with projects, and managing conflicts.  This makes it literally impossible for a young adult to grow into independence. Their lives are being micromanaged, even from a thousand miles away.
The expectation is that today’s young adults will never have to go it alone, or at the very least that they will have many, many years before they must take full responsibility for their lives.  And the fact is that oftentimes this is the case.  Generation Y has more affluent parents than any other generation in the past, and many have become accustomed to a lifestyle that they cannot afford on their own. This is partly why we have seen college graduates moving back home and receiving financial support from their parents like never before.  Why live independently, but poor, when you can live the good life back at mom and dad’s?
  • 45% percent of college graduates are living with their parents.
  • Only 25% of parents expect their child to have a full-time job after graduation.
  • 65% of parents expect to support their kids for up to five years after they graduate.
  • 68% of college students expect financial support from parents after leaving school.
  • Only 2 out of 5 people in their 20’s describe themselves as financially independent.
So, what can parents do to avoid raising young adults who are perpetually stuck in the delayed adolescence that has become so commonplace in our society, and how can they help transition their young adults into full autonomy and independence?  They can start by instilling in their children a sense of responsibility at a very young age.  They can do this by allowing children to experience the natural consequences that come from their behavior.  For example, if a young student does not study for a test, then they do poorly on the test.  It seems pretty simple, but the natural inclination of parents is to want to call the school and have them provide a make-up test or extra credit.  While this may solve an immediate problem, it teaches children that there will always be an opportunity to right a wrong and that there are no real consequences.  There are certainly few make-ups or extra credits in the real world.
As children get older and transition into adolescence and young adulthood, parents need to slowly but surely take appropriate steps back, allowing their children to take on more and more responsibility for their own lives.  A huge temptation for parents is to provide for their children in every way, but being a loving parent means teaching responsibility, not taking responsibility.  One way to teach responsibility is to insist that high school students have a part time job.  Having a job promotes autonomy, money management skills, time management, and teaches adolescents to get along with people from different walks of life.
Parents can also work on resisting the urge to save their children from every hardship.  Helicopter parents like to solve every problem and save their children from every possibly mistake.  This has created a generation of young adults who are petrified of failure, who avoid taking risks, and who find it impossible to make difficult decisions.  Parents of adolescents and young adults are oftentimes too quick to answer questions and make decisions for their children.  Parents need to ask questions, not answer them.  Ask, “What do you think is the best option?”  “What decision will produce the best outcome for you?”  “What will make you happiest in the long run?”  Allow the adolescent to figure things out on their own, even if you know better.
Finally, parents must allow their young adult children to be financially independent.  Even though parents of Generation Y may have the money to support their adult children, does not mean that they should.  As long as children receive financial support from their parents they will have no motivation to transition into independence.  Growth must be predicated by some sort of discomfort.  For example, living in a dump of an apartment while struggling to pay bills will certainly motivate a young adult to succeed more so than living in their parent’s house rent free, having all meals provided.  There is no need to change, evolve, or grow when we have all of our needs met.
A change in parenting style may result in a child or young adult who does not like us as much for a while.  But it is not the job of a parent to be liked, it is the job of a parent to raise adults who like themselves.  Research shows that young adults who are able to financially and emotionally support themselves have higher levels of self-esteem, independence, and success.  Watching a child struggle, falter, and fail is one of the most difficult things a parent can witness.  But if we think back on our own lives we know that our own struggles and failures were the most important steps in our path to success.  We may not always agree with the choices our children make, but our children’s lives are their own to live.  Children have to find their own path, they have to make their own decisions, and they have to learn from their own mistakes.  This is the only way to make it to a place where they feel fulfilled, successful, and happy.