Swiftwater Journey

faith, culture, and growing up in a rapidly changing world

In Defense of Helicopter Parenting December 31, 2009

Dr. Sarah Ravin is a trained scientist-practitioner in clinical psychology specializing in the treatment of adolescents and their families with various eating disorders. Her recent blog responding to last month’s Time Magazine article warning of the downside of over-involved, enmeshed, controlling parents gives a short defense as to when helicopter parents actually help their teenagers get well.

In Defense of Helicopter Parenting « eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and psychotherapy.

Dr. Ravin does acknowledge the potential and real harm done by helicopter parents, citing the work of Eric Erickson, who taught that “the primary developmental task of middle adulthood (ages 30-50) is seeking satisfaction through productivity in career, family, and civic interests.” This desire clashes with the needs of their children, who according to Dr. Ravin, are right in the middle of their primary adolescent developmental task: identity formation.

“Children need to play, explore, relax, and interact with their surroundings in creative, imaginative ways. Adolescents need to loaf, “hang out,” date, experience “teen angst,” spend quality time with family and friends, develop their social skills, make their own choices (within reason), make mistakes, and learn from them.”

In her practice, and I believe this will be verified by other therapists with an adolescent focus, Dr. Ravin sees middle adolescents and emerging adults woefully lacking in the kind of development that is required to step into adult roles and responsibilities (“solid self-identity, resilience, confidence, good problem-solving skills, and the ability to tolerate discomfort and failure”). Is it possible that helicopter parents stunt necessary growth? I think the answer is yes. In the research of those of us involved with ParenTeen, we’ve found that over-controlling parenting styles are another form of the all-pervasive systemic abandonment of adolescents stunting their maturity. According to Dr. Ravin:

“Their lives have been geared entirely towards achievement in academics, arts, and athletics, often not for the love of science or music or soccer, but because their parents pushed them and/or because they believed it would improve their chances of gaining admission to a prestigious college. Quite often, they don’t know how to structure their time, study properly, deal with disappointment, or make decisions independently. Sadly, many of them do not know who they are or what they enjoy.”

The pendulum can swing to parenting extremes: uninvolved, disinterested, lenient, absent, and self-absorbed, or controlling, hovering, over-protective, and enmeshed. Both styles fail to provide the kind of positive nurture, boundarying, and coming alongside, that adolescent’s need and want. Many parents simply leave their kids alone way too much. But others hurt through their driving presence.

“Helicopter parenting has the potential to be quite harmful to children by increasing their stress and anxiety and preventing them from developing self-confidence, resourcefulness, problem-solving skills, distress tolerance skills, emotion regulation skills, and creativity. Children and adolescents are over-scheduled, over-worked, and pushed to succeed, often at the expense of their emotional health. There is not enough unstructured time for kids to play, explore, or create. There is little room for adolescent identity formation in between AP classes, Princeton Review SAT prep courses, college applications, three varsity sports, band practice, clubs, and mandatory community service hours.”

Dr. Ravin gives the caveat that as she works with adolescent’s seeking control and recovery of an eating disorder, the helicopter parents do step up to the plate in a positive and proactive way. She would rather have the involvement and support of a super-involved parent rather than one who from a distance wants her to “fix” their child.

More important than our parenting style at a given point is how we as parents and a community are present for our kids. They need loving, present, positive, boundary-making, flexible, parents who understand the length and complexity of the adolescent journey.