Three Cheers for Healthy Helicopter Parents

We aren't overprotective, we're involved. And we are here to stay
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The search for 10-year old Jessica Ridgeway is over -- a nightmarish outcome embodying every parent's worst fear. For any parent that keeps up with the news, we are bombarded with stories and statistics of teen suicides, bullying, school shootings and abductions. And yet, parents are reassured that violent crime is declining (somewhat true, depending on the region and type of crime) and those of us who express anxiety about our children growing up safely are sometimes labeled "neurotic" or "over-involved." It's a curious paradox -- we are supposed to keep up with latest news in crime, health and education, but we are pathologized as "helicopter parents" if we react to it. For example, I recently told some older acquaintances that our pediatrician instructed us that our children should always be sprayed with deet in the evenings because of the rise of the West Nile virus in our area. I was met with eye-rolls by a mother of grown children. I've had similar reactions to my insistence that my 7-year-old ride in a car seat (it's the law, by the way) and my preference to get to know a parent prior to letting my little ones be picked up and driven off for play dates. I've had friends with grown children respond with dubious smiles and sarcastic rhetorical questions like, "How did we ever manage to raise our children without these rules?" The truth is, I don't know. But as a trauma psychologist, I suspect that the rates of childhood sexual abuse were as high in the 1960s and '70s as they are today (approximately one in twelve boys and one in six girls). In fact, those numbers might have been even higher back then. Sure, our kids have new threats now, like West Nile, amphetamine addiction, assault rifles and cyber bullying. But we also have old threats like schoolyard bullying, incest and sexual abuse -- things that have been around forever, but are only now being recognized, documented and discussed.

Interestingly, helicopter parents are more a generational issue than a personality style. Today's parents are not "over-parenting." We are modifying how we parent based on two factors, 1) our improved knowledge of the devastating impact of traumatic events and 2) the growing amount of news available to us via modern technology. In recent decades, we have become much more aware of the importance of children's emotional, social and developmental needs. The old authoritarian parenting style, with its sole emphasis on basic needs (e.g., food, clothing, shelter) has started to give way. Many parents are now considering their children's mental health, sense of achievement and feeling of belonging in a peer group. A generation ago, it was not uncommon for most parents to think that bullying was normal rite of passage. The devastating effects of childhood sexual abuse was also overlooked. Fortunately, things are starting to change. A second huge influence on parenting style is the increased availability of news, thanks to technology. What happens in one part of our country is immediately known and experienced by parents everywhere. If parents of previous generations missed watching the evening newscast, they may have not heard about a child abduction or assault that took place hundreds of miles away. In today's world of social media, it's much more difficult to miss. This isn't a good or bad thing -- but with more information comes more responsibility as a parent.

Overall, from a psychological standpoint, over-parenting isn't the real enemy. Kids who have parents who are abusive or uninvolved tend to have the worst outcomes. Indeed, being involved with your children is largely a healthy thing. This doesn't mean making every small decision for them, but it does mean helping them navigate the larger difficulties in life and being an advocate for their health and safety. It means embodying a state of "responsible, relaxed readiness," one in which we are aware of possible threats our kids face, but also allowing them to participate in life. It's a difficult balance. The most challenging one we'll ever have.

The good news is that with each generation, we've been striving to make the world safer for our kids. For example, according to the CDC, accidental injuries were the number one cause of deaths for kids (ages 0-19) in 2012. Importantly, the number of deaths in this age group decreased 30% in the last decade, largely due to car seat laws, teen driving restrictions and bike/scooter safety campaigns focused on wearing helmets. Parents who passionately advocated for these laws helped to make the world a lot safer for our children -- these campaigns, this awareness has saved lives. In the same vein, continued advocacy for child safety and violence prevention will save future lives. We can't continue to improve the quality of our children's lives by pretending that threats don't exist. We have to talk about safety; we have to talk about our fears. I want to thank the helicopter parents who have gone before me -- increasing protection and challenging our culture to be more respectful and nurturing toward our children. I strive to be like you. We aren't overprotective, we're involved. And we are here to stay.