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'Helicopter parents If you let your child fall down they might just learn to get back up again'

21st-century parenting is the reason that many young people today have remarkably poor coping skills, writes Shane Dunphy.

A COUPLE OF Sundays ago I was in the park with my grandson who is five.

It was a pleasant winter’s afternoon, and the swings and slides were crowded with children of all sizes, clambering here and there. The sound of chatter and laughter, as well as one or two sobs and wails, could be heard from all sides.

The park is the exact same one I used to frequent when I was a kid, and as I watched my grandson make his way up the climbing frame, a look of happy determination on his face, my mind flashed back forty years to when my friends and I had embarked on similar adventures.

In a moment of something close to enlightenment, I saw the park as it had been then: much less play equipment, the lawns not quite as well manicured, the surface rough tarmacadam instead of the softer, synthetic matting legislation now dictates to prevent injuries.

All these differences were profound, but what struck me most as I pondered this mental picture was one major factor was very different.

My park of the late 1970s and early 1980s was largely devoid of parents, and the few that would have been present would have sat on benches (probably smoking), watching their children from a distance.

The adults of the 21st century, myself included, were all following their children around, staying within arms-reach as they played, ready to catch them in case they fell and coax them over the tougher bits of the various pieces of equipment.

Some were literally following their progeny around with a hand laying on their backs, or loosely holding an arm. Which meant that the play was different, too – it seemed more sedate, slower, less free somehow.

It was the perfect image to illustrate what has come to be known as ‘helicopter parenting’ – these Mums, Dads and grandparents were, literally, hovering over the child in case they became distressed.

How has this controversial parenting style become the norm? And I am as guilty of it as anyone.

Helicopter Parenting

The concept of ‘helicopter parenting’ has been around since the late sixties, evolving from the term ‘cosseting parents’, but did not come into wide usage until it was identified by the psychologist Foster Cline in the late 1990s.

He reported a teenager he was working with describing his parents ‘hanging in the air over him, like helicopters’ and how he felt smothered and helpless by their ‘crushing kind of love and protection’.

The phrase passed into widespread usage in the early years of the 21st century, when college administrators and lecturers began noting that the millennials they were working with seemed to have remarkably poor coping skills and little resilience.

This is something I can identify with. I have taught college for 16 years and can recognise the gradual increase in parents advocating for, and in some cases doing actual course work for, their adult children.

I have, on more than one occasion, had to ask a parent to leave the room when they accompanied their son or daughter to an admissions interview.

But there is a much darker side to all of this, too.


I am paid to teach, but in recent years, I have probably spent as much time supporting students in crisis. Of course, some of these crises are based around very real, very serious issues like domestic violence, homelessness, abuse or addiction.

But many more are rooted in something else entirely, something far less tangible. They are rooted in an inability to cope with the normal obstacles and challenges of life.

College is designed to be something of a combative environment – people are competing for grades and working to deadlines – and doing an assignment or a project is all about having someone, an expert in their field, assess how good or bad you are at their topic, which isn’t very nice.

But then, the world that awaits once students receive their parchments – the world college is supposed to be preparing them for – is even more of a challenge.

The young person will be struggling to find a job among the myriad of others who have the same degree they do. They will need to be ruthless, resilient and strive to excel.

And it’s not just assignment pressure that causes these bouts of anxiety.

Breaking up with boyfriends or girlfriends, body image issues, arguments about any range of subject matter on social media or being triggered by the material being discussed in class. Rarely a day goes by when at least one student is not in tears in my office.

Their capacity to cope when life gets tough (even if the issue at hand is a quite normal, if mildly upsetting, milestone that everyone goes through) seems to not be part of many of our young adult’s skills set these days.

Searching desperately for a way of dealing with the pain, some of them turn to self-harm, eating disorders and substance abuse.

And my colleagues in other institutions are experiencing the same thing.

Organisations like Pieta House, which offer free counselling for people exhibiting self-harming and suicidal ideologies, are snowed under from the demand. I find myself referring people to them on an almost weekly basis.

The only way we can stem this tide is, I believe, to be aware of the pitfalls we can so easily fall into as parents. Don’t worry, I am not holding myself up as a shining beacon – I’ve admitted to ‘helicoptering’.

Madeline Levine, a psychologist who has written about parenting in the information age, offers a checklist of 10 warning signs and clues that you may be a helicopter parent.

  • You will only allow your child to play on playgrounds with rubber flooring.
  • The first thing you do when your child comes in crying having fought with another child is to ring their parents to ‘talk it out’.
  • You find yourself up at 11pm rewriting your child’s homework (or college assignment) because you know they would have done a better job if they hadn’t been so tired.
  • Your 8-year-old still has training wheels on his/her bike.
  • You have bad back from stooping to follow your toddler around the room to catch them if they fall.
  • You experience anxiety when your child goes on a sleepover to a friend’s house, and always stay if they go on a play-date.
  • Having them clean up, help prepare dinner, or mow the lawn is something you would not even consider (cleaning fluids are toxic, knives are sharp, and what if they tripped and fell under the lawnmower?)
  • You use a baby monitor with a camera on it (but your child is six years old). 
  • You answer for him or her when they are asked a question by teachers, youth-leaders or friend’s parents in your presence.
  • Your child didn’t get the school/college/place on the sports team they wanted, and you ring the administration office to negotiate an exception be made for them.

Full disclosure, I probably fit five of these. What about you?

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert, author and broadcaster. He is Head of the Social Studies Department at Waterford College of Further Education.

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