Replacement Behaviors to Helicopter Parenting

By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

Helicopter parenting — the phenomenon by which parents hover over their children at all times, for every life decision — has gained increased media attention as of late. recently published an article on the topic, along with parenting data and suggested alternative parenting behaviors.    Most of the discussion was based on Julie Lythcott-Haims’ new book titled How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare your Kid for Success.  

Even though the discussion was not explicitly based on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, any Board Certified Behavior Analyst can easily make the connections.  In short, if helicopter parenting is indeed detrimental to children’s development, it likely does so by insulating the child’s behavior from naturalistic contingencies of reinforcement and punishment that would otherwise increase his/her likelihood of becoming a well adjusted member of society, with an appropriate repertoire of social skills to navigate the turbulent waters of adulthood.

There is at least some evidence questioning the effectiveness of helicopter parenting.  According to Fatherly, helicopter parents tend to decrease openness to new ideas, and increase vulnerability, anxiety, depression, and use of psychotropic medications.  Fatherly also cited a study from the Journal of Family Psychology showing a minority of 18-25 year olds qualified as “adults” based on measures of personal responsibility and financial independence, among others.

Fatherly points out that, if you live in the U.S., safety shouldn’t be a justification for helicopter parenting, citing data which suggests that American kids are “less likely to die, be killed, or get hit by a car than pretty much anytime in history.”  Being overprotective might decrease the chances of your kids gaining opportunities to learn self-preservation skills for themselves.

Fatherly recommends “grounding the helicopter” by adopting an authoritative parenting style, which tends to balance concerns for safety while also allowing your children to learn from their own experiences.  Authoritative parenting can follow a few simple guidelines below:

  1. Give your child responsibility.  However, make sure the responsibilities are appropriate for his/her age.  Responsibilities generally include placing contingencies squarely on the child’s behavior and include things like cleaning, cooking, and getting up on their own.
  2. Have your child accept failure.  Everyone fails, and it’s ok!  Failure is a great way to learn, and is a great opportunity for parents to help their kids “overcome disappointment through support and encouragement.”
  3. Empower your kids in difficult times.  As adults, we know life isn’t all rainbows and sunshine.  Life has plenty of obstacles to overcome and challenges to meet.  Your children will surely experience challenges of their own.  Fatherly recommends resisting the urge to jump in and fix everything immediately.  Rather, problem solve with your child to brainstorm solutions.  Doing so will help build important skills to be used later in life.

Be sure to check out the full article and let us know your thoughts on helicopter parenting in the comments below!  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns and  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].

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