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Hovering Parents, Anxious Kids

Helicopters carry heavy loads and hover as they rescue people from precarious situations. As parents, we sometimes perform helicopter duties, like carrying a sobbing child through a crowded airport or scooping up a toddler before they run into a busy street. Parents who constantly swoop in to rescue their children from distressful and non-life-threatening situations, however, may cause more harm than good.

According to a study from, hovering or overprotective parents are more likely to turn out neurotic, more dependent adult children. “[College] students with helicopter parents tended to be less open to new ideas and actions, as well as more vulnerable, anxious and self-conscious, among other factors, compared with their counterparts with more distant parents,” the study reported.

Dr. Ed Christophersen, a psychologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital, says hovering becomes problematic if the child isn’t learning key life skills, like good sleep habits, independent play and self-calming skills.

“But, because in my experience many hovering parents hover in order to keep themselves from getting stressed by seeing their child distressed, the odds are they will not allow their child the opportunity to learn the life skills,” Christophersen says.

To raise children to become self-reliant, independent adults, Christophersen urges parents to instill four important life skills.

1. Good sleep habits. Avoid co-sleeping with your baby (514 children were smothered in the past 10 years due to co-sleeping with a parent, according to Christophersen). After the age of one, establish a short bedtime routine that includes brushing teeth, bathing, reading bedtime stories and praying or quiet talk time. Studies show that children who can fall asleep on their own and stay asleep throughout the night are more likely to do well in school.

2. Separation skills. The first day of preschool or daycare is often stressful for both parents and their children. Your child may cry or “press back into you. Don’t pick them up,” Christophersen advises. Allow your child time to adjust and soon it’s not so anxiety-provoking. Learning healthy separation skills promotes a sense of self-confidence and the ability to transition more easily from one situation to another.

3. Independent play. Children as young as 18 to 24 months can learn to play by themselves for extended periods of time. Unstructured playtime not only provides children with a quiet outlet from a busy day, it nurtures creativity, decision-making and self-reflection.

4. Social skills. Once your child enters toddlerhood, encourage cooperation and sharing through parallel play, in which two children play independently with the same group of toys, and eventually social play skills, in which children play together with the same toys.

In tandem with healthy sleep habits and social skills, establish a system that helps children learn step-by-step independence. “Set them up for success when they are young and then back off,” says Mary Jennings, a Kindergarten teacher who has taught for 34 years.

The night before a school day, for example, help your children pack their backpacks and have them set out their clothes. Assign specific household chores to help them build a skill set and a sense of responsibility. Cues and prompts, like index cards or color-coded family calendars, are simple reminders. “Consistency is key. Don’t give up too soon. It takes 21 days to change a habit,” Jennings adds.

Recalling how difficult it was to drop off her two junior highschoolers for their first day in a new school, Holly Clark understands the temptation to hover. “I felt bad for them since they did not know anybody, but I also knew the last thing they needed was their mommy walking in with them,” she says.

Clark gives her six children, ranging in age from two to 15 years, the space to make age-appropriate decisions and learn personal responsibility. “If we see that they may head down the wrong path, we will step in and intervene,” she says.

With her husband in the military, the family moves frequently. To get everyone off on the right foot, she and her husband make it a priority to select a good school district and neighborhood. “When the children... go to college, we will not be there, so we need to let them have some responsibility for themselves now so they will not be overwhelmed when we are not there.”

For additional parenting tips, check out Christophersen’s book, Parenting That Works: Building Skills That Last a Lifetime.

Freelance writer Christa tries not to hover over her two sons, but admits it’s not always easy.


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