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How to ground a 'helicopter parent'

  • Story Highlights
  • "Helicopter parents" hover over kids, micromanaging every aspect of their lives
  • Approach doesn't help teens develop decision-making skills, counselor says
  • Professor: Too much hovering can backfire and shut down communication
  • Parents need to instill sense of personal responsibility, psychologist says
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By Donna Krache
CNN
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(CNN) -- We all see them and swear we're not one of those so-called "helicopter parents" who hover over their kids, micromanaging every aspect of their lives.

If a parent becomes so involved they can't let go, it becomes embarrassing for a child, professor says.

They fly into school in attack mode ready to confront the teacher or coach for "unfair" treatment of their kids.

They obsess over teacher assignments.

Some demand that their child be moved to another class before the school year has even begun.

As parents, it's perfectly natural to want to advocate for and protect your child. But how far is too far?

Rich Barbera recently retired after 30 years as a high school counselor in New Fairfield, Connecticut.

He applauds parental involvement and wishes there were more of it at the high school level, pointing out that some good changes come about as a result. At his school, for example, more Advanced Placement courses were offered as a result of parental requests.

But he's also seen his share of helicopter parents. Barbera has had parents come to his office to pick up SAT applications for kids who weren't planning to go to college. He had seen parents show up in the guidance counselor's office with college applications that they have filled out for their kids. Back to school by the numbers »

One problem with this approach, says Barbera, is that it doesn't help teens develop their own decision-making skills. Before students picked up the phone to call Mom after something happened at school, he'd encourage them to consider questions such as "What's the good and the bad that can come from this?" and "What are my options in this situation?"

"It gives students confidence when they can solve problems themselves," said Barbera.

Dr. Ken Haller, associate professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, agrees that parents should help kids learn to make their own decisions.

"If a parent becomes so enmeshed in the child's life that they can't let go, it becomes embarrassing for the child."

According to Haller, around middle school, it's part of children's natural development to identify more with peer group. If they're constantly going back to Mom and Dad to make all the decisions, this process becomes more difficult. And if a child is always asking for help, Haller advises parents to reassess how they have been responding to the child's requests.

When a parent hovers too much, it can backfire and shut down communication.

Haller offers an example: If the student fails a biology test and the parent marches up to school to protest the grade, there may be an underlying issue that's not being addressed. A parent-child discussion might reveal that even though the child has the academic ability to earn an "A" in biology, she's not interested in the subject and wants to be an artist. But if this discussion never takes place, the child feels like a failure and a lot of anger is generated between parent and teacher, making the situation even more stressful.

This isn't to say kids need only to do well in subjects they like, but it illustrates a missed opportunity for productive parent-child dialogues about unpleasant tasks and career interests.

Dr. Nancy Weisman, a licensed clinical psychologist in Marietta, Georgia, says that clear communication between parent and child is vital. When she talks about helicopter parents, she cites examples of those who rush up to school with forgotten homework and lunch money each time the child needs it. Some kids, she says, feel a sense of entitlement to be taken care of this way when they drop the ball.

Weisman tells parents to be aware of this sense of entitlement and instill in its place a sense of personal responsibility. Parents should clearly communicate that they are not going to step in every time a child thinks he needs it.

"It's important for kids to know they're not going to be rescued," Weisman said.

One behavior parents should want to model for their kids is how to deal with powerful people. "If you go in and try to bully them, you give the kid the message that the only way you'll get things is to be confrontational and adversarial," said Haller. He points out that much more can be learned by teaching kids the value of negotiation.

Haller says that the most important thing a parent can do is listen. "Listen to your kids, but listen to the other adults in your kid's life who are important: The teacher, the coach, the dance instructor." If the child is complaining about being treated unfairly, instead of storming into a meeting and demanding answers, listen to the other adult's side first.

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Haller encourages conversations between parents and their kids to help decide what battles to fight and which ones to talk through. He advises parents to ask questions like, "What was on the test?" "Did you ask other kids in the class if they thought the material was covered adequately?" and "What do you think we should do about this?"

But there are times, says Haller, when the best action is inaction. "Sometimes," said Haller, "the kid just wants to vent about it."

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