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Helicopter Parents May Slow Prefrontal Cortex Growth

When parents do what kids can do for themselves, their brains don't develop right.

Parents who want their kids to grow up to lead happy and healthy lives might help them most by resisting the constant urge to help children in every situation. This seemingly — if not actually — comes courtesy of renowned neuropsychologist William Stixrud, co-author of The Self-Driven Child, haver of self-driven children, and guy who knows exactly what he’s talking about. According to Stixrud, it’s important to let kids take a trial and failure approach because it teaches them to understand and overcome their limitations.

“We know that when kids are required to make their own decision, they’re very honest with themselves,” Stixrud, who’s also the parent of two adult children, tells Fatherly. “We have all sorts of clinical data to back up that when you respectfully ask kids to make a decision, they really can make good decisions for themselves.”

In his over 20 years experience researching brain development, motivation, and mental health (also, being a father), Stixrud has learned that when parents solve kids’ problems for them, it alters the development of their prefrontal cortex, an essential part of the brain responsible for a variety of complex behaviors. Consequently, the best intentions can short-change children in a permanent way. Fortunately, Stixrud has a practical alternative that represents a practical and brain-building middle path.

Why do parents want to control their kids so badly? Where does this impulse come from and how can moms and dads recognize and limit it?

Parents love their kids, and everything we do as parents, even things that are wrong-headed in retrospect, it’s all done out of love. When kids are really upset we want them to feel better and it’s particularly hard for parents who are anxious themselves because solving their kids’ problems increases their sense of control. When you’re anxious, by definition, you’re experiencing a relatively low level of control. And when your kid comes home upset by something or has a problem, it makes the kid upset and anxious. One thing we try to do is solve the problem so we can feel less anxious overall.

In the book, you talk about how this control inhibits a child’s ability to develop internal motivation on their own. How does solving their problems keep them from developing this?

Every part of the body of research on motivation that says the key to self-motivation is autonomy. We found the self-determination theory, one of the best-supported theories in the field of psychology, says the autonomy is the key to motivation. The key is for kids to have a sense of being passionate about what they’re doing and get better and better at it through this sense of autonomy. Kids don’t pay much attention to what parents want, especially when you get to be a teenager. The best message you can give a teenager is that you have confidence in their ability to make decisions about their own life.

And what tends to happen when kids aren’t given this autonomy when they get older?

There’s a bunch of research on affluent kids. We know that affluent kids are at risk for a lot of problems, which researchers think is because they feel this chronic sense of pressure and they don’t feel close to their parents. We want kids to feel close to their parents and to not feel chronic pressure.

From a neurological and psychological perspective, what does this chronic pressure do to the brain specifically?

What we know is that in children and adults is that when you’re stressed it makes the amygdala bigger and more reactive. It actually shrinks the part of the brain that can think rationally, the part that’s involved in self-regulation in the prefrontal cortex. When we’re in our right mind — when we feel happy and not unusually stressed, the prefrontal cortex is regulating the rest of the brain, including the amygdala.

Once you start to get stressed, from an evolutionary point of view, you don’t want to overthink. So when you get stressed the prefrontal cortex shuts down. Stress hormones cause the prefrontal cortex to get flooded, and once it’s flooded it just can’t work. You’re not supposed to be able to think clearly when you’re stressed, and that has evolutionary advantages but unfortunate effects. All these effects that make kids are more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse because the brain then their brains can’t handle stress as well and are more easily stressed. It becomes this vicious cycle.

There have to be some instances where it’s appropriate for parents to intervene when their kids have problems. How can parents tell the difference? How do they know when to back off?

We recommend parents ask “Whose problem is this?” If these really are kid problems, then our job is not to solve them. It’s to help the kid solve them. Research on rats shows that when you shock them, it’s extremely stressful. But if you give them a wheel to turn after, it gives the rat a sense of control and the prefrontal cortex activates. Then in similar stressful situations, the rat can leap into a coping mode, even in situations that are uncontrollable. What we want to do is condition kids when they have a problem to leap into coping mode as opposed to waiting for their parent to solves a problem.

There are some problems a kid can’t solve themselves. If they’re being mercilessly bullied at school, an adult needs to step in. But we want as much as possible for kids to develop that coping impulse. It almost inoculates kids from stress by experiencing that. There’s a big difference between coaching a kid and trying to solve problems for them.

So, how can parents give up control without checking out completely? What can they do to make sure they’re still there for their kids?

When kids feel securely attached to a parent or caregiver they feel safe, and when they feel safe, they explore and take risks appropriately. They’re more adventurous. Having the internal sense of safety, or a “safe base,” is simply good for human beings. In one study, researchers separated baby rats from their mothers every day for a couple of weeks, which was extremely stressful for the rats, and then bring them back to their mothers. When mothers licked and groom them for a long time after and let them know they were okay, these rats became almost impossible to stress as adults. But you have to have that den, that environment to let your guard down.

The one thing parents can do is love kids unconditionally, so when they come home with a lot of anxiety and anger they expect love. When they expect more fighting and stress, that’s hard for kids. Overall, having a healthy prefrontal cortex that’s integrated with the rest of the brain allows us to stay in our right mind. This is a much greater predictor of success later in life than IQ is. If we could wish for anything for our kids, a healthy prefrontal cortex would be high on my list.