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How Helicopter Parents Ruin Their Kids

Helicopter parents threaten kids' ability to grow on their own.

Helicopter parents who exercise excessive control over their children from an early age may be putting their kids at a serious disadvantage, according to a new study of more than 400 children. The findings suggest that parents who always look over their kids’ shoulders may be unwittingly preventing them from practicing emotional and behavioral control on their own. Such children, the study suggests, are ill-prepared to cope with stress and prone to lash out at others.

Children don’t want to be friends with other children who cannot manage their anger, and hit them whenever there is a disagreement,” co-author on the study, Nicole B. Perry of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, told Fatherly. Being able to control your emotions and behavior “is one of the most fundamental skills that children develop in early childhood,” she adds. 

Perry isn’t the first to examine how parents’ behavior impacts children’s self-regulation. In 2002, psychologist Sheryl L. Olson of the University of Michigan found that when toddlers with restrictive moms grew older, they exhibited less control over their behavior. Eleven years later, researchers at Arizona State University released a study that showed how intrusive parenting negatively affected their ability to shift attention and modify their behavior when necessary.

For this new study, Perry and her team collected data from 422 two-year-olds and followed up when the children were 5 and then again when they were 10. At age two, the researchers looked for signs of helicopter parenting (forcing children to play in ways that conformed to the parents’ expectations, for instance). At age five, they tested each child’s emotional and behavioral control by intentionally frustrating them (unevenly dividing candy between themselves and the hungry toddlers, among other challenges). Finally, at age 10, teachers assessed each child’s social and academic skills. The results suggest that helicopter parenting is linked to poor academic performance and behavioral control (although, naturally, the study could not prove causation). 

Regardless, the research broadly suggests that micromanaging your kids is bad parenting. Fixing it, Perry says, is principally a matter of re-education — convincing over-enthusiastic parents to tamp down some of their involvement, for the good of their children. “In order to minimize over-controlling behaviors in parents,” Perry says. “It’s important to educate parents on the importance of supporting children’s autonomy and ability to handle emotional challenge.”