New Study Shows Helicopter Parenting Backfires

June 10th 2015

Next week, I'm traveling to Hawaii for my older brother's wedding. Up until an hour ago, I was excited for every aspect of the trip: getting some sun, relaxing with a magazine and margarita by the water, catching up with relatives I don't see or chat with enough, going off the grid, etc. Then I received a call from my well-meaning but perpetually worried Jewish mother, who is concerned about the fact that I'm renting a car and schlepping the two of us around the island.

"If the roads are too intimidating, we can just use shuttles," she said over the phone. "Let me know if you're not comfortable driving during our stay."

I hadn't given it any thought until she planted that possibility in my head, at which point I started to question whether I could handle the task after all. Because she's been a helicopter parent for as long as I can remember, I often feel I can't tackle basic adult things --- like renting a car on vacation or driving from Southern California to the Bay Area alone --- because my parents frequently aired their fears of what could happen to me if I took healthy risks.

That's why I'm not surprised to hear Brigham Young University just released new research showing there's nothing redeeming about helicopter parenting, which is defined as being too involved in a child's life, solving a child's problems, handling a child's conflicts and making important life decisions for a child. The study found that parental warmth, which is measured by the amount of time spent bonding with a child, doesn't counteract the consequences of helicopter parenting, but that a lack of warmth exacerbates the negative effects of helicopter parenting, which can lead to a lower self-worth and a higher chance of indulging in risky behavior like binge drinking, smoking and theft. In other words, if you had a helicopter parent who didn't coddle you with love, you're in the worst position.

The academic impact of helicopter parenting

The research, which examined the long-term effects of helicopter parenting on more than 400 undergraduates, was published in Emerging Adulthood as a follow-up to 2012 findings that helicopter parenting makes kids less engaged in school. This time around, the academics expected to determine some positive effects of helicopter parenting without much luck.

“From our past work, we thought there might be something positive about helicopter parenting under certain conditions, but we’re just not finding it,” study author Larry Nelson said in a release. "Overall, stepping in and doing for a child what the child developmentally should be doing for him or herself, is negative. Regardless of the form of control, it's harmful at this time period."

Why teens need this time to grow

Frances Jensen, author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, told The Huffington Postthat a person's teen years are crucial for brain development and that teenagers must exert independence to acquire skills in problem solving and impulse control.

"[Teenagers] are developing experiences, learning from the experiences and creating synaptic pathways," Jensen said. "It’s a learning time. You have to learn from experience ... I think parents should make sure they stay out of the day-to-day trial and error, because your kid is going to need to use that experience to learn when to take a risk and when not to take a risk."

Tom Buchanan, who co-authored another previous study on the impact of helicopter parenting, told USA TodayUSA Today in 2012 that kids with helicopter parents reported a lower psychological well-being and used more anxiety and depression medications as well as recreational pain pills.

"As the scores went up on our helicopter parenting scale, overall psychological well-being went down," Buchanan said. "It's kind of its own animal, I would say. You have a lot of engagement, but you're not really fostering independence. You are engaged with your kids, but you're kind of deciding for them certain issues."

The key, according to study author Nelson, is a balance between autonomy and parental support, which kids still very much need. This means mom and dad will have to give up some control, and that's not such a bad thing.

“Lack of control does not mean lack of involvement, warmth and support,” Nelson said.