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Helicopter Moms, Listen Up!

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Overprotecting your kids might be doing more harm than good.


Clinical psychologist Dr. Cara Gardenswartz, Ph.D: In my psychology practice, I work with many mothers who are overly involved and invested in their children. For many moms, this is an understandable role to take in order to assure that their children are protected and given the benefits and support that they themselves didn't have as children. However, by overprotecting their children, they are unconsciously attending to the child within them that was neglected or ignored. By doing so, they may not even see where their children are at and what they need.

When I see parents hovering around their children (from "solving" the puzzle for their toddler, to crying as they wave goodbye to their children at elementary school, to writing their children's college essays), I encourage them to try to differentiate their own issues from their child's feelings. In some ways, their kids are so fortunate to be thought after. In turn, their children will not have the same abandoning experience that they did. But the mothers may be setting their kids up for many unproductive roles and experiences.

These include:

  1. A child feeling like she has to take care of her mom (often called a "parentified" child). When mom is upset, it becomes her role to soothe her mother's anxiety.

  2. A child who cries at a sleepover because she is afraid that mom is nervous (another way of unconsciously taking care of mom).

  3. A child who internalizes her mother's anxiety and becomes anxious herself, and doesn't take risks.

  4. A child who does not learn how to cope with her feelings of sadness, loss, rejection and anger, since Mom "solves" the problem for her rather than allowing her child to experience and work through her emotions and learn she will be OK. The child doesn't learn to fail. Oftentimes, a child in this scenario will experience depression or feelings of low self-esteem.

During the college process, maternal anxiety can become especially stirred up. While it is the child applying to college, the mom has her own wishes and fears that may be projected onto the child. A rejection letter for the child may feel like a personal rejection. There is the pressure of SATs, essay writing, and awaiting the big or thin envelope in the mail. If mom was overly successfully, she may expect the same for her child. If mom didn't go to college, her child's admission may be a way for mom to feel a sense of accomplishment. In addition, mothers have to deal with the feelings of their children leaving home -- which can be extremely sad and represent a new and challenging stage in the mother's life.

The best thing a mother can do when the child receives the big or small envelope on the big admissions day and afterwards is to mirror their child's happiness ("I can see you are so happy"), sadness ("I know this feels like such a disappointment"), anxiety ("it's so hard to wait"), or anger ("it feels so unfair"). She can also help her child think of ways to solve the situation but NOT solve it for her. If she attempts to take over, this will undermine the child's confidence in being able to do deal with both failures as well as rob the child's ability to internalize her successes.

For the parents whose children had to undergo the tumultuous experience of rejection, acceptance and then rejection again to the University of California, San Diego, I would listen to your child and ask her how she is feeling. Then mirror her feelings (e.g., "It really isn't fair... you got your hopes up...." ) rather than solving the problem despite your desire to do so (because of course you want retribution -- and for the school to make it right -- and your child was an unnecessary victim!) But don't forget -- be with your child and mirror her feelings, wherever she is at. That is the best parenting you can do.

How to be involved without being intrusive:

Make sure you attend to other aspects of your life outside of being a mom -- date nights, friend time, hobbies, etc.

Follow your child's lead. Don't push her into things they she is not interested in (e.g., a particular AP class at school or a certain college).

When she withdraws, gently let her know you are there for her, if and when she is interested in talking.

Focus on your child as opposed to your dream of what she should be like and achieve (or what you wish you could have had).

As she gets older, give her more age-appropriate responsibilities and more space, even if you'll miss her.

Take a deep breath. Allow her to experience her emotions and problem solve before stepping in. But always be on the sidelines. You still matter.

Are you the mom of a teen? Connect with other moms like you in the momlogic community.

next: Never Give Up Date Night!
6 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous April 2, 2009, 6:56 PM

Octomom could take a lesson from Dr. Gardenswartz in not putting her stuff onto her kids

MessyMom April 2, 2009, 10:39 PM

It’s hard to remember about the “distance” when you are running on autopilot (2 teens, 1 tween) so much- but it’s a good reminder

MMadison April 3, 2009, 3:10 AM

What a great article. I especially liked the part about undermining the child’s confidence in dealing with failure and how we can rob our child of some very important experiences. Us moms need to remember that our best efforts to protect our children may actually be a disservice to them. Thanks to Dr. Gardenswartz for such a thought-provoking article.

jennifer April 4, 2009, 9:19 PM

I totally agree. As a mom, I firmly believe that less is more when it comes to helping your children. I really attempt to put my agenda aside when I am with my children. I try to remember that my job is to teach them with love and keep them safe.
Another great article. Keep it up!!!

julie April 12, 2009, 9:21 PM

Right on Dr. Gardenswartz and thanks for the good advice.

Jami August 8, 2010, 8:15 AM

Another study shows the same effect with opposit parenting practice . The reality is every child needs different things . I’m sure you can find an equal number of helicoptered children who are outgoing, well adjusted problem solvers ( who credit their moms for thier success) . There are situaions where the MAJORITY of children experience negative results , such as those physically, mentally or sexually abused ; but different parenting styles are not so predictable as the auther makes them sound.
The reality is that this current generation of parents is SO self adsorbed that their children run no risk of being helicoptered into neurosis. Children today are treated like a chore that must be attended to and not the privilage that some of us still feel they are. I was watching a news interview where mothers where talking about how much their lives SUCKED since having children. I cringed thinking of how many children were watching that show and developing paranoid thoughts that they were ruining their absentee parents’ lives too , but that kind of crap is A -OK in our society ; it’s all right to DETEST your child , just not love them too much . I say F- U to that, I’ll take the chance my kids will say I smoothered them but I’ll NEVER take the chance that my kids question if I really loved them .

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