‘Helicopter’ parenting could give children social and emotional problems

Children who have helicopter parents may be more likely to struggle at school and become badly behaved, according to research.

Youngsters with parents who hover over them and dictate what they do may be less likely to cope with the challenges of growing up.

The research, by the University of Minnesota, found coddled children are more likely to struggle in school and have difficulties making friends.

This is because children need to learn the ‘fundamental skills’ of managing their own emotions and behaviour, but overwhelming parents could limit their ability to do so.

In a study which observed children whose parents were demanding, the researchers found some of the youngsters became ‘defiant’, ‘apathetic’ or ‘frustrated’.

Examples of ‘helicopter parenting’ in the study included: telling a child what toy to play with, how to play with it and how to clean up after playtime.

It is important for parents to discuss their child’s emotions with them, the experts said, and to set good examples in their own behaviour as well as teaching them healthy coping strategies.

Children whose parents are too strict or demanding are more likely to become defiant and angry, according to the research

The scientists said children need parents who are sensitive to their needs, who recognise when they are capable of managing a situation themselves, and who will guide them when emotional situations become too challenging.

Children who are encouraged to handle difficult situations on their own grow up with better mental and physical health, stronger relationships and more academic success, the scientists said.

‘Our research showed that children with helicopter parents may be less able to deal with the challenging demands of growing up,’ said Dr Nicole Perry, lead author of the study.

‘Children who cannot regulate their emotions and behavior effectively are more likely to act out in the classroom, to have a harder time making friends and to struggle in school.

Children react by becoming defiant and frustrated 

‘Helicopter parenting behavior we saw included parents constantly guiding their child by telling him or her what to play with, how to play with a toy, how to clean up after playtime and being too strict or demanding. 

‘The kids reacted in a variety of ways. Some became defiant, others were apathetic and some showed frustration. 

‘Children who developed the ability to effectively calm themselves during distressing situations and to conduct themselves appropriately had an easier time adjusting to the increasingly difficult demands of pre-adolescent school environments.’ 

The study found overcontrolling parenting when a child is two leads to them being less able to control their emotions and behaviour when they are five.

Emotional control improves school performance 

The better a child is at keeping their emotions in check at age five, the less likely they are to have behavioural, social or education problems when they are 10, the researchers found.


Anxiety is at an all-time high among children and teens and experts warn that young, worried minds might be better off without comfort from their parents.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a quarter of young people between 13 and 18 years old suffer from anxiety.  

New Hampshire-based psychotherapist, Dr Lynn Lyons, says parents must resist the urge to comfort their children and encourage them to approach challenges, rather than retreat from them.  

She says anxiety spreads through the family. 

For stressed out parents, Dr Lyons says, soothing and avoiding anxiety’s causes often seems like the quickest, most conflict-free solution to their children’s worries and the best way to preserve some semblance of order in their families.

‘That seems like a good idea at the time because it immediately calms things down and gets the child to be more co-operative,’ says Dr Lyons.

But it is important to teach children to deal with things that are upsetting them. 

Dr Lyons adds that appeasing anxious children can ‘limit their range of function, their ability to grow and to develop resilience’ down the line.  

Similarly, by age 10, children with better impulse control are less likely to experience emotional and social problems and are more likely to do better in school. 

Dr Perry added: ‘Our findings underscore the importance of educating often well-intentioned parents about supporting children’s autonomy with handling emotional challenges.’

How the research was carried out  

The University of Minnesota researchers followed the same 422 children in the US over eight years and assessed them at ages two, five and 10. 

Children in the study were mostly white and African-American and from economically diverse backgrounds. 

The researchers also collected observations of parent-child interactions, teacher-reported responses and self-reports from the 10-year-olds.

During the observations, the research team asked the parents and children to play as they would at home, and made notes on how both parent and child acted together.

They found that children with parents who constantly tell them what to do are less able to control their emotions or to behave well.

The scientists say this can lead to children growing up with bad social skills or struggling to do well at school.  

Parents should teach their children healthy coping strategies 

Dr Perry suggests parents can help their children learn to control their emotions and behavior by talking with them about how to understand their feelings.

It is also important to explain which behaviors may result from feeling certain emotions, as well as the consequences of different responses, she added. 

Then parents can help their children identify positive coping strategies, like deep breathing, listening to music, colouring or retreating to a quiet space.

‘Parents can also set good examples for their children by using positive coping strategies to manage their own emotions and behavior when upset,’ said Dr Perry.       

The research was published in the journal Developmental Psychology. 

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