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Custody Disputes Encourage Helicopter Parenting

Contentious custody battles bring on controlling parenting behaviors, but it's not the court's fault for measuring parental involvement.

Custody disputes in contentious divorces can bring out the worst parenting behaviors and controlling helicopter parenting habits seem to surface the most often, experts acknowledge. This is not a coincidence, so much as a consequence of how family courts function and the psychological impact divorce takes. There’s evidence that when courts use demonstrations of parental involvement such as managing appointments, education, and activities to determine custody allocation and child support, that only encourages helicopter parenting behaviors further.

“In the area of custody disputes, legislatures and courts effectively enforce Intensive Parenting norms,” law professors Gaia Bernstein and Zvi Triger wrote in the University of California Davis Law Review. “Intensive Parenting can become over-parenting.”

A growing amount of evidence suggests that over-parenting such as helicopter parenting sets children to lead more anxious, entitled, and ineffective lives by robbing them of certain coping skills. However, as more states accept that the ample engagement of both parents is what’s best for children and move towards 50/50 model, helicopter behaviors aren’t propelling parents in family court anymore, Spencer Schiefer, an Arizona-based divorced attorney, explains. While this may not stop controlling personalities from coming out, Schiefer spoke to Fatherly about why many judges no longer rewarded over-parenting.

In custodial cases, how do courts typically measure parental involvement on both sides? Is it an entirely objective process?

The courts only look at things they can measure. They want to see that the parent is making use of their parenting time, first and foremost. They they look to see whether there’s been any issues with parenting exchanges, like not showing up, or habitually being late. Then they want to look at if the child’s needs are being met. Are they making it to school on time? Are they going to their doctors appointments? Those types of things are what they look to make sure are being covered by both parents.

What sort of challenges can arise in measuring parenting this way?

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The hard part is that life is messy and things happen. Bad things happen, and I’ve had clients get bent out of shape about their ex not watching their kids closely and getting scraped knees or hanging out with the wrong friends. There’s a loss of control when it comes to a lot of the day-to-day aspects of parenting. In my experience, courts really don’t get into micromanaging those things unless it escalates into something bigger. They generally take a hands-off approach because of the constitutional right to parent your child, and the courts recognize that parents aren’t going to see eye-to-eye when they’re married, but especially when they’re going through a divorce. That can allow some of the day-to-day issues to go unchecked, for better or for worse.

So it seems like these disputes would bring out helicopter parenting in moms and dads who were already more controlling to begin with? It’s not really the court’s fault. Is that accurate?

That’s what I’ve seen. The change and the divorce dynamic can exacerbate some of the parenting tendencies that were already there. For parents who are overly involved, it’s important to be cautious because those behaviors can backfire. What parents need to realize is that most judges overseeing their case are also parents. They have their own viewpoints and biases some of that creeps in. For example, you could have an overly involved, helicopter parent who is trying to do the right thing, but in doing so they’re maybe not making the best choices for the child. And then they go to court and one parent says they’re doing all these things, but their ex says they’re being controlling. And the judge may think they’re doing too much and tell them to back off.

So the courts will get involved, it’s just not always in the way that controlling helicopter parents want.

Yes, and the reason why is because courts are reactive, not proactive. There’s just too many nuts and bolts in the day to day parenting responsibilities, there’s not enough time for courts to micromanage that. They have to allow some flexibility and ambiguity, which keeps the courts from getting overly involved.  

When helicopter parents continue to be controlling even when it doesn’t work or backfireds, are they just acting out to some extent?

I think so. It’s a huge shift from seeing your kids everyday, and with an equal split that’s a 50 percent reduction in engagement they would typically have with their children. Then there’s the emotional aspect of the divorce can creep in, and parents can do things as a way to get jabs in at their spouse.

Have you noticed any differences between moms and dads when it comes to helicopter parenting?

We’ve come a long way in terms of gender equality in many aspects, but from what I see it’s still typically men are still the breadwinners and women are still the home caretakers. Because of that I see more mothers struggle with controlling every aspect of their children’s lives. That’s not to say I haven’t run into any controlling or helicopter dads, but broadly it’s more mothers who tend to have these concerns.

I’m curious about the helicopter dads you mentioned. What do they do that might be unique?

They want to control where the kids go to the doctor, when they have appointments, medication, aspects of education like parent-teacher conferences, and they also want to be really be involved in extracurricular activities. I think what’s happening is that they’re vicariously trying to control their ex spouse through appointments and activities. And because of potential self-crises they want to control the child’s activities to live vicariously through the child, which is a common thing anyways with parents in general. But that can be exacerbated after a divorce.

But again, it’s not really the court’s fault that these dads act like this, it seems more psychological. Is that right?

Yes, it’s less about the process and procedures of the court and more about the emotional and psychological toll that the divorce has that can cause issues with helicopter parenting and controlling behaviors.

Beyond helicopter parenting, what are some other negative personality types and negative parenting behaviors that divorce might bring out? What do divorcing moms and dads need to be careful about?

The worst one I see is where parents try really hard to manipulate the child to get back at the other parent or hinder the relationship with the other parent. Children aren’t dumb and they learn that their parents are lying to them pretty quickly. A parent can get away with it when their younger, but once the children get older, but nine or 10 and definitely but their early teens, they become really aware of which parents are trying to manipulate the situation, and it has a negative and long-lasting impact because eventually the child has enough.

What people need to understand about the courts is that they’re only going to be dealing with them until the child is 18, but their going to be a parent for decades after that. They really need to be careful with what they do in their family law cases because that will have an impact long after family court. People who are manipulating their kids to gain an advantage, that’s the worst parenting behavior divorce brings out, and I see it all too often.

Are there any other reasons it’s so hard for divorcing parents to give up control and let their exes be involved as much as the court allows? Why is this such a power struggle when most parents want what’s best for their kids?

What happens in often households, not all the time but a lot, is that when couples are together the dad is at work a lot and mom is at home. When they get divorce, they both need to become breadwinners and they both need to become caretakers. What mothers will say is that, “Well he never came to these events before, or he never cared before.” They become defensive as to why dads what to be involved and have input on these decisions. And courts accept that both parents are going to be involved, and a lot of mothers have a hard time with it because they were doing the heavy lifting before.

It seems like exes really struggle to trust that they both want what’s best for their kids, but the courts are starting to assume that fathers have the best of intentions.  

There’s a lot of cynicism there, like when mothers accuse dads of wanting more time just to lower their child support, for instance. But the increased levels of activity and engagement could be coming from a genuine and caring place and is rarely selfishly motivated for financial reasons. As far as policy goes, most courts and states agree that it’s important for children to have meaningful contact with both parents and for them to significantly involved in the children’s lives. It’s a big dynamic change in the family. It’s an adjustment and not everyone is going to be happy about it.

So what can divorced dads do to avoid being both victims of helicopter exes and becoming helicopter parents themselves?

But dads should be assertive but cordial when if comes to approaching their parenting responsibilities and participation. It gets tough, but if dads let them fall by the wayside then that can be seen as a negative. The courts might think that you’re not even trying. That can lead to more limitations. On the other side, if dads are not careful they can be viewed as an aggressor or bully. They have to walk the fine line of trying to assert the rights they’ve been awarded, but do so in a polite manner.