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Guest blog – Colby Pearce: What’s in a name? The problem with the “Helicopter Parent” metaphor

Thursday 24 March 2016

A helicopter is an aircraft that, amongst other things, allows its occupants to hover, observe and, where necessary (as in the case of emergencies), intervene.

“Helicopter Parent” is a prejorative term used to refer to parents who are intrusively overprotective of their children. By intrusive and overprotective, it is meant that these parents hover, observe and intervene to clear all of life’s minor and major obstacles from the path of their children.

All parents who have raised secure, well-adjusted and resilient children were once “helicopter parents”, as defined above, to a degree. You were a so-called “helicopter parent” when you hovered, observed and intervened to respond to your pre-verbal infant’s needs. In doing so, you facilitated your child love of you, trust in you, and secure dependency; all of which are building blocks to emotional security, wellbeing and success in life.

As they get older, children do need to experience adversity so that they can learn to overcome it and trust in their ability to do so. However, they benefit from us standing alongside them during times of adversity. Standing alongside them and intervening before they experience overwhelming and disempowering failure increases the likelihood of mastery experiences. Mastery experiences are vital to the promotion of a perception of personal competence and self-worth.

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The following is the prologue for my book A Short Introduction to Promoting Resilience in Children (London, Jessica Kingsley, 2011):

Once upon a time there were four children. On a warm and sunny day the parents of each child took them to an adventure playground for a play.

The first child had a wonderful time at the playground. He confidently swung on the swings, slid on the slippery-slides, toured the tunnels, and flew on the flying fox. Under the watchful gaze of his parents he tried everything and excitedly reported his feats of bravery and accomplishment to them. His parents accompanied him to each item of equipment and warmly acknowledged his efforts. They even tried some of the more difficult items to demonstrate what was possible and remained close by to catch their child if he should fall. Upon leaving the playground this child sought acknowledgement from his parents that he could come again another day.

The second child bounded from his parents’ car and eagerly entered the adventure playground, not noticing that his parents remained in the car. Observing many children at the giant slippery slide he excitedly approached it to give it a go. He was unconcerned that the other children at the slippery slide were much older than him and that the slippery slide was very high and very fast. He did not notice, nor did anyone tell him, that the slide was better suited for older children. He flew off the bottom of the slide and cannoned into the ground, hurting his arm. Shock and pain turned to tearful distress as he could not immediately find his parents for soothing of his hurts. When his parents belatedly arrived to attend to him he was difficult to soothe and angrily refused to try any other equipment. His anger and distress quickly escalated and he was carried, screaming, from the playground.

The third child approached the playground much more cautiously, preferring to remain close to his parents, holding hands. His parents guided him to the quietest corner of the playground, where the smallest and safest equipment could be found. They held his hand or carried him in their lap on the swings and the slide. When he gazed wistfully at the other children his age who were re-enacting tales of bravery and heroism in the fort, his parents encouraged him to remain with them in the sand-pit. His parents delighted in his company, and he in theirs, and he readily agreed that the fort looked dangerous and the other children played too rough.

The fourth child never made it to the adventure playground as his parents could not afford to buy fuel for their car. He spent the day alternately demanding to be taken to the playground and sulking about not being able to go.

Colby Pearce is a Clinical Psychologist and author who specialises in assisting children and families overcome adversity and experience strong and secure attachment relationships. If you’d like to read more of Colby’s work, then you can visit his blog.

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