Helicopter Parenting Linked to Anxiety and Depression in Children

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

Raise your hand if you end up doing the majority of your kid’s language arts homework? Or is it just me who spent an entire weekend making a booklet on penguins and writing an essay on Mandela? It isn’t so much that I want to control everything, but I have a fear that if my son hasn’t properly researched a speech or presentation he has to make, he’ll get up in front of his class and make a huge fool of himself. My husband frequently reminds me, “It isn’t your homework, it’s his.” He refuses to get involved, but I just can’t help myself.

And apparently this isn’t a good thing.

A recent study found that our “intrusiveness” makes youngsters self-critical, anxious, and depressed, and urges helicopter parents like me to step back and let their children solve problems for themselves.

The study, conducted by the National University of Singapore and led by Assistant Professor Ryan Hong, assessed 263 seven-year-olds from 10 schools over four years between 2010 and 2014. Parental intrusiveness was assessed in the first year of the study using a game played by the child (who was then 7 years old) with the parent present. In the game, the child had to solve puzzles within a time limit, and the parent was told that he or she could help the child whenever they wanted. An example of “highly intrusive” parental behavior would be when the parent took over the game to retract a move made by the child. The purpose of the task was simply to observe whether the parent interfered with the child’s problem-solving attempts, regardless of the child’s actual needs.

Subsequent assessments on the children were carried out at ages 8, 9, and 11. Results showed that about 60 percent of the children involved were classified as high and/or increasing in self-criticalness, while 78 percent of the children was classified as high in “socially prescribed perfectionism.”

The findings proved that in a society that emphasizes academic excellence, parents may set unrealistically high expectations on their children. As a result, a sizable amount of kids may become fearful of making mistakes. “Also, because they are supposed to be ‘perfect,’ they can become disinclined to admit failures and inadequacies and seek help when needed, further exacerbating their risk for emotional problems,” explained Hong.

The study went on to say that children with increased levels of self-criticism were at an increased risk of developing symptoms of anxiety, depression, or even suicide.

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The study went on to say that children with increased levels of self-criticism were at an increased risk of developing symptoms of anxiety, depression, or even suicide.

So in wanting our kids to do well, are we in fact putting too much pressure on them, to the point where they are getting anxious about making mistakes? I’ve recently found this to be true in my own children. My son is on a cricket team that my husband helps coach. At the start of the season, my son kept making unforced errors and his bowling was off; I watched in horror as he cried on the cricket pitch, working himself up into a frustrated frenzy. My husband would shout encouragement from the sidelines, but that didn’t help matters.

I noticed how Finn would retreat to his room after a match, filled with self-loathing and angst. When we chatted he told me that having his dad as one of the coaches was the worst thing; he felt such pressure to succeed when he was watching all the time. He felt like all eyes were on him, and that he was obligated to do an excellent job. As it happened, my husband disagreed with the way the teams were being run and stepped aside as assistant coach anyway. My son relaxed far more without his dad there coaching from the sidelines. My husband wanted to watch the matches and support him, but he stopped going for a few games, just to give Finn breathing space so he would feel less stressed.

So how do us helicopter parents take our foot off the gas? Well, letting kids make mistakes is a good start. After all, we only learn from our mistakes and it teaches us to try and do better next time; to assess where we went wrong and not repeat it. According to Hong, instead of asking our kids if they “got a 100 on the spelling test,” we should just ask, “How did you do on the spelling test?” That takes away the expectation that they have to ace everything. Also, we should compliment them on how well they’ve done, rather than focusing on their mistakes.

Avoid labeling your children as the “smart one” or the “trouble maker” or the “forgetful one,” because they’ll begin to feel that that is their only box, when in fact we have no idea what person they’ll become.
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My son’s teacher even told me to step back a bit, so instead of always making sure he has his P.E. bag or bringing his forgotten packed lunch to school, I just let him organize his stuff himself. If he forgets his bag, he misses out on P.E. If he forgets his lunch, he goes hungry. These mistakes are vital so he learns to be responsible in the future.

Another tip is to avoid labeling your children as the “smart one” or the “trouble maker” or the “forgetful one,” because they’ll begin to feel that that is their only box, when in fact we have no idea what person our child will become. We have to remember that our children are NOT us. They don’t need to agree with everything we think or say. Let them have their own opinions and ideas; let them choose their own path … it might even be better than you imagined.

Finally, maybe we should take a leaf out of our own childhoods. As writer Serge Bielanko recently wrote, what was so wrong with the way we were parented back in the early ’80s? My mom never knew if I’d completed my homework — but it got done. She barely knew my teacher’s names and rarely attended school functions. She let me follow my own path and barely interfered with any of my choices. She trusted me to have respect for myself and act responsibly.

And I didn’t turn out so bad!

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