“When I was young, my mom and dad sent us out to play in the morning in our neighborhood, and we didn’t come home until dinner time,” a friend said to me recently. “But times have changed. I feel like I have to keep constant tabs on my kids. I wish they could have the kind of childhood I did, but what can I do? I need to make sure they’re safe.”

Times have changed, and of course we all want to protect our kids and make sure they’re safe and healthy. Where this can become problematic is when parents attempt to remove obstacles in their child’s path, or try to ensure that their kids will never experience pain, disappointment or discomfort. Enter the helicopter parent.

What is at the heart of most helicopter parenting? Anxiety—about our kids’ safety, happiness, and ability to navigate in the world. Many of us spend a large percentage of our time second guessing every move we make as parents. Our minds cause us to project our worst fears onto our children – we love them so much and we want to protect them from any harm. Over time, we can become hyper vigilant for any signs of trouble in an attempt to cut it off at the pass. This constant vigilance can become larger-than-life, though, because we start imagining and projecting things we shouldn’t on to our kids.

If our kids are unhappy, we might overreact and automatically try to make them feel okay. If they are uncertain, we may mistake this for deep insecurity and shower them with praise and assurance. We “futurize” negative outcomes when our imaginations get activated. In fact, it’s been proven that our brains are wired in a way that makes negatives stick like Velcro, while the positives slide off like Teflon. Worry kicks in. “Is my kid really okay? Is he too aggressive, too quiet, too loud, too tall, too short? Is he showing signs of insecurity? Is he acting like my brother, who didn’t turn out so well? Do I need to give my daughter more attention since I didn’t get enough as a child?”

Listen, none of us wants to “screw up” our kids…but the absolute surest way to do just that is to constantly worry about screwing them up! That is the frustrating irony. We want to do it all right, but sometimes our insecurity about getting it all wrong leads to hovering and tracking our kids for the first signs of expected trouble. Here’s the truth: When you expect something, you will find it. And when you try to fix what you worry about, you inadvertently create it. This is a self -fulfilling prophecy in action, and it’s exactly what leads kids to feel self conscious and insecure about themselves. You see, children often have the belief that, “If my parent is worrying about me, then there must be something about me to be worried about!”

The “Worried-Driven Cycle”

The “Worried-Driven Cycle” is the way anxiety moves through relationships. Here’s a scenario to explain how the “Worried – Driven Cycle” can go with a parent and child:

Karen is the mom of two boys. She worries about screwing them up and having them grow up to be insecure. She is especially anxious about her 15-year-old son, Jack, who is defiant, acts out and has problems with authority.

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She nervously “over-focuses” on Jack (and always has) and looks for signs of his insecurity and low self-esteem. Karen is hyper vigilant for any sign that he’s not okay—and then when she feels her fears are confirmed, she either tiptoes around him, or tries to fix things for him.

After years of this, Jack has come to rely on her focus and attentiveness. Even though he would never say so, he is both anxious about her concern about him and reliant on her constant attention and focus.

As a teen, Jack has become anxious about himself and “other- focused”—reliant on attention and focus from others for his sense of worth—the pattern he learned from his relationship with his parents. He comes to need “other validation” in order to feel good about himself in all of his relationships, and feels insecure if he doesn’t get it. This is exactly what his parent feared would occur and tried desperately to prevent by hovering, doing too much and removing obstacles from his path.

What can we learn from this scenario? Stop looking for evidence to confirm your worries. Realize that your worrying gets in your child’s way.

6 Steps to Avoid Over-worrying and Helicopter Parenting

Here are 6 DON’Ts when it comes to over-worrying, over-focusing on your child and being a helicopter parent:

1. Don’t hover over your child

Don’t tie your 5-year-old’s shoes when she can tie her own, or dress her when she can dress herself. Avoid hovering and holding her back from normal “risks” a child would take at her age level. It’s also not a good idea to talk to her teachers incessantly, or answer all your child’s questions so she doesn’t have to think of answers for herself. If she hesitates to make her own decisions, try not to jump in and do it for her—let her reason it out on her own if she can. Allow her to feel discomfort or pain; it’s part of growing up. Don’t prevent her from struggling or rescue her from life’s hardships. Kids can’t learn if their parents are always doing it for them.

2. Don’t put your worry on your child’s back

Don’t focus on your child morning, noon and night, imagining all the worst outcomes. Let go of negative thoughts about her future, like, “What if she doesn’t amount to anything when she grows up? Is her shyness a sign of her lack of confidence?” Don’t interrogate her when you get anxious, and keep asking, “Are you okay? “ “Are you sure?” Or “That looks difficult. Are you sure you can handle that?” Or “Do you have anyone to play with at recess? Who?” Don’t look for evidence to confirm your worst fears about your child.

3. Don’t make your child the center of your universe

Don’t try to get all your emotional needs met by your child. If you’re there at his beck-and-call and over-functioning for him (in other words, doing for him what he can do for himself), he’ll have a hard time functioning on his own in the world. Most importantly, don’t allow his achievements to determine your self-worth and validation as a parent.

4. Don’t label your child

Negatively (or even positively) labeling your child is not a good idea, because it can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, or push her into a box that isn’t right for her. Don’t remind one of your kids that she is “the pretty one” or “the funny one” or “the lazy one” or “the one who will turn out just like Dad.” Avoid saying, “You never…” or “You always…” Let go of deciding now who your child is or will become; nobody knows yet, not even your child. Allow yourself to imagine other possibilities. The bottom line is that words are powerful, so don’t make negative predictions about what your child will become.

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5. Don’t take it personally if your child doesn’t agree with you, or does things differently from you

If you get in your child’s head, he won’t be able to hear his own thoughts and beliefs. Even if he thinks differently than you, don’t argue with him over it—instead, invite him to tell you more. Don’t shut him down when he has ideas or opinions that are different from the ones you would like him to have, or insist on having the last word. And finally, try not to take things personally if he chooses a different path in life than the one you thought he would take.

6. Don’t focus on your child as a way of not having to deal with your own struggles

This is a big one, and can be very hard for parents. Try not to get so involved in your child’s life that you neglect your own. Don’t think or worry about your child so much that you avoid thinking about your own life, your work or your adult relationships. What I often say to parents is, “Don’t focus so much on taking care of your child’s garden that you forget to tend to your own.”

What’s a better approach? Let your child experience the consequences of his actions. Let go of constant worry as a parent, and realize you can’t control everything your kids do—you can only respond to how they behave. Try to see their strengths as well as their struggles. You can avoid over-worrying and being a helicopter parent if you work on developing strong relationships with your children by getting to know them for who they are. Allow them to make their own mistakes, face their own consequences, and solve their own problems. This will allow you to let go of hovering, doing too much for your kids and worrying about them all the time, and best of all, it will help you become a calmer, more peaceful parent.

Related Content:
Your Child Is Not Your “Friend”
Differences in Parenting? How Your Child May Be Using it Against You

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For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

Comments (20)
  • Broken hearted dad
    I'm afraid that I did many if not all of these things to my son while he was growing up now he is 20. Recently he stopped coming over and staying two or three days with me a couple of times a month. For the last two months he's beenMore finding reasons to not visit me, and he stopped talking with me too. During a conversation via text, he said, “I don't feel like I can be myself. I'm both physically and mentally uncomfortable, and also it's like I'm in a different universe over there. You and I differ so fundamentally on a lot of things, I have to keep so much to myself.” I was shocked because he's never said anything like this to me before. I feel like I failed him and my heart is broken, and I don't know how to fix whatever it is that I did to make him feel like this. What do I do now? Thank you.
    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach

      Thank you for reaching out. I can hear how distressed you are with your son's choice to limit the time he spends with you. We hear from other parents experiencing similar estrangement from their now adult children. We have a couple articles that focuses on this specific topic you may find helpful: https://www.empoweringparents.com/search/estrangement

      We appreciate you being part of our Empowering Parents community and wich you all the best moving forward. Take care.

  • M. Soe
    I wish I had read and taken heed to this Article 25 years ago. My children are now grown but I still worry and want to move obstacles from their path.
  • Selene
    Thank you so much for writing this helpful article, it is eye-opening. I have noticed how my small daughter is becoming very dependant on me, she even gets angry when I do not do things her way and whines at every little mistake or trouble, and I have always triedMore to help her out either by explaining things or seeing what can be done as fast as possible not giving her a chance to figure things out herself. I will definitely back off because I am clearly saying to her with my actions that she can not do it by herself. Thank you!
  • Jonie
    Great insightful article! I do think it is easy to fall into the trap of being overly anxious of a child's wellbeing, especially for a new parent. Thanks for the tips!
  • Megan

    Any recommendations on books for parents for more on tbis topic?


    • Empowering Parents Editor

      Great question. The author of this article (Debbie Pincus) has a parenting program with us called The Calm Parent AM & PM that covers these issues.

      In the program, Debbie explains how and why parents need to "stay in their own box" and "stay out of their child's box." This concept of staying in your own box is central to her program and is, essentially, the issue of helicopter parenting.

      Here is the link to learn more about it: The Calm Parent AM & PM

      Thanks for visiting our site!

  • Sophia
    This is a very helpful article it’s brilliant and unfortunately, I have done every single one of the things that you listed. my daughter is now 12, and I see what I’ve done. how can I fix this? she is the only child. I am not workingMore Or dating . She’s my world. she’s having issues with her friends and I am all up in her business so much that sometimes I’ll even text her friends When she doesn’t know what to say ... I hate this, its embarrassing (to myself and her) I feel foolish. whenever she’s upset by a friend , I’ll worry about it the whole day.. giving her ideas of what to do... I hate this.. I need to Stop but how? I’ve had a horrible horrible preteen and teen years I guess all my fears are driving me to act this way...
  • Delphi
    My son is 16 in a few weeks. He win’t actually give me his phone anymore (dad pays for it). It’s really the only thing that seems to matter except being with friends and he chooses friends who want to get drunk/high so I don’t encourage him being with themMore and it’s not a consequence that is good for him. I don’t even think he should have a phone bc he exposes himself to so much negativity. So he recently said flat out he just doesn’t want to live by my rules. There’s no negotiation left so I took him to live with his ‘not always stable’ dad. I needed a break from his conflictual exchanges. I was guilty of ‘helicoptering’ because of divorce guilt and trying to steer him since he has been getting failing grades since 3rd grade. Sooo, what do you do when the defiance is so high that you can’t create that exchange of consequence to bahvior modification?
    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      Thank you for sharing your story. We have a few articles on parenting after divorce you may find helpful: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article-categories/non-traditional-families/divorced-parents/
  • Mel
    So as a parent, if my child at the age of 16 doesnt care for my consequences( because they do not work) then he will learn from the outside world consequences? Such as, he always goes to bed super late and when I try to wake him up in theMore morning he gets angry. Should I just let him wake up late and then face the unexcused tardy or absence? This is an every morning thing.
  • Jello
    Wow, this article is one of the best I’ve ever read. It describes myself perfectly. I have a lot of work to do to stop my helicopter parenting style
  • Ilexiou
    I love this site, but really this is the best post I’ve ever seen - sometimes we have to stop blaming ourselves, stop second guessing ourselves and let our children be themselves and let life happen to them - thanks for the wonderful post!
  • Maria
    How can I stop worrying about my son who has seizures and chooses to drink and not listen to me he is 22yrs old I do constantly worry about him night and day.
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      I hear you. It is typically easier said than done to stop worrying about your adult child, especially when you witness him making potentially risky choices which could impact his health. The hard truth is, though, that your son is an adult and is allowed to make hisMore own decisions, even those you do not agree with or could be harmful to him. If your son is living with you, you can set limits for his behavior in your home, such as not allowing alcohol in your house. You might also consider getting some support for yourself, such as a counselor or support group, to help you through this time. For information about resources available in your community, try contacting the 211 Helpline at 1-800-273-6222. 211 is a service which connects people with local services. I recognize how challenging this must be for you, and I wish you and your family all the best moving forward. Take care.
  • Jade32

    How can I avoid helicopter parenting my 9 year old?

    She has been really poorly and is slowly recovering and I am really anxious about her going back to school. I can feel myself hovering but don't know how to stop

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      Jade32 Part of parenting is nurturing your child, and taking care of her when she is ill, so it’s a natural reaction to want to protect and to worry about her as she recovers.  I understand your anxiety around her return to school.  It’s a great sign that you haveMore noticed yourself hovering more, and want to change this pattern so your 9 year old can regain her strength and independence.  The first step toward changing behavior is the having the desire to do so.  In addition to the tips in the article above, you might find more strategies in another article by Debbie Pincus, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/parental-anxiety-5-ways-to-relieve-the-worry/.  Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family.  Take care.
  • nivedita vedaang
    Helicopter parenting means hovering over the child everytime.We all are concerned about child safety but that doesn't mean we won't let the child enjoy his time.We should keep an eye on child but from a distance so that the child doesnt depend on us for even small petty things.We haveMore to help child grow and start trusting himself rather than making him completely dependent on us.
  • chaps03
    As the mother of a recovering drug addict I won the prize for helicopter parenting and honestly thought I was doing the right thing.  It went so easily with enabling I almost didn't notice but finally realized the only answer for my sanity and the health and well being ofMore my entire family was to stop. Thanks so much for clarifying SIMPLE steps that honestly can help prevent what happened in my family from happening in others.  I enjoyed your article very much!
  • Babita

    I would like to thank the entire team of Empowering parents as you are doing the great job. I m regularly reading the articles published by u from time to time.

    I would appreciate the way all the points are nicely explained by you which help me a lot to remove my ignorance in bringing up my child and to be a good mother.

    Children are so innocent the only need is to understand and handle the situations tactfully and I m sure this will help me a lot.

    From this information I came to know that first we have to change our self then automatically the situation will come under control.

    while dealing with the children we are the leader and children are the follower so if we bring change into ourselves the things will improve

    once again whole hearty I m thanking you for the efforts you are taking in educating the parents

    hip hip hurray...............................................................

    Read more: How to Stop Worrying and Avoid Helicopter Parenting: Don’t Do These 6 Things

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