SCIENCE

Extra Love Doesn't Make Up For Negative Effects Of Helicopter Parenting, Study Finds

06/09/2015 11:57 am ET
Chris Ryan via Getty Images

Parents want their kids to be safe and protected -- but trying to shield a child from all of life's challenges can come at a cost.

Psychologists have found that parents who do this too much -- and become what are known as "helicopter parents" -- may actually cause problems for their children, including having low self-worth and engaging in risky behaviors like smoking and binge drinking. And according to new research from Brigham Young University, parental love and support don't help to mediate these negative effects -- and a lack of parental warmth and affection might make them worse.

Helicopter parenting -- which consists of being over-involved in a child's life, making decisions on their behalf, solving their problems and inserting oneself into their conflicts -- can have a negative effect on a child's psychological well-being, relationships and school engagement, the BYU researchers noted. However, they also noted that some previous research has shown helicopter parenting can increase parental guidance and involvement in positive ways.

The new study, which was published in the journal Emerging Adulthood, follows up on 2012 research that found children with helicopter parents are less academically engaged.

For the study, the researchers asked 438 undergraduate students from four universities to answer questions about their parents' controlling behaviors and warmth, as well as questions about their own self-esteem, risk behaviors (such as binge drinking, smoking and shoplifting) and academics.

The analysis revealed that the more helicopter parents were lacking in warmth, the more their children's self-worth decreased and risky behaviors increased. And while high levels of parental warmth minimized these effects, they did not eliminate them.

"Overall, stepping in and doing for a child what the child developmentally should be doing for him or herself, is negative," Larry Nelson, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University, said in a statement. "Regardless of the form of control, it's harmful at this time period."

Helicopter parenting and the young brain. So what does this parental over-involvement do to a young person's brain? Frances Jensen, author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, says the teenage years are a critical period for brain development. Teens must gain experience making their own decisions and solving their own problems in order to develop key executive functions like problem-solving and impulse control, she argues.

"[Teenagers] are developing experiences, learning from the experiences and creating synaptic pathways," Jensen told The Huffington Post. "It’s a learning time. You have to learn from experience. ... I think parents should make sure they stay out of the day-to-day trial and error, because your kid is going to need to use that experience to learn when to take a risk and when not to take a risk."

Helicopter parents would be better off helping children with "their own introspection," she said.

What's a parent to do? Effective parenting likely involves giving teens a balance of freedom and support.

"The take-home message is that young people need high levels of autonomy -- NOT control -- during the emerging adulthood period," Nelson wrote in an email to HuffPost. "But a lack of control does NOT mean a lack of involvement. Parents still need to provide support and warmth. Parents should not confuse control and involvement -- it is still important that parents are a part of their child's life, but should not be controlling their child's life!"

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