'Helicopter' Parents and the Link to Mental Health in Children

Mental health issues are a critical matter in today's society, with over 57.8 million adults suffering from a mental health illness in 2021. A new study says the concept of "helicopter" parenting may contribute to the worsening mental health in the nation.

In simple terms, helicopter parents refer to those that overprotect their children and control all of their actions without providing room for independence and growth. With helicopter parenting, children can often grow up to be anxious, depressed, and merely not know how to survive without the help of their parents.

The study's co-author, David Bjorklund, says children do not get enough time to play and explore. With increasing fear in parents and their overprotection, children are often caved inside their homes and school with constant attention and care. "It’s not a really new phenomenon. It’s a growing one. And it's been growing for decades," says Bjorklund.

The research says the concept of "helicopter" parents was derived in the 1960s and became popular in the 1980s.

It is a natural instinct to want to protect your children and keep them safe. However, the paper suggests too much protection and not allowing them to grow independence can heavily impact their mental health, often leading to anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation.

No matter one's age, it is innate to desire freedom and needs without parents constantly interfering. To delve deeper into the issue, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association released a joint statement to the White House asking for child and adolescent mental health to be announced as a national emergency.

On February 13, the CDC released a report that around 57% of U.S. teenage girls felt constantly sad or despaired in 2021. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) approximately 30% of high school students had suicide ideations, which is almost 60% higher compared to ten years ago.

"High school should be a time for trailblazing, not trauma. These data show our kids need far more support to cope, hope, and thrive," says Debra Houry, M.D., M.P.H., CDC’s Chief Medical Officer and Deputy Director for Program and Science. "Proven school prevention programs can offer teens a vital lifeline in these growing waves of trauma."

New research published in the Journal of Pediatrics suggests children's mental health has declined due to many factors, including modern-day education and school strain. Compared to 1950, the average school year in 2010 was lengthened by five weeks. With increased homework and tests, students are constantly faced with anxiety and pressure to perform well.

Despite the heavy workload and intense pressure from school, recess averaged 26.9 minutes per school day. An average full day at school is approximately 6.64 hours, meaning their break time is approximately 7% of their school day. Young children are pressured to perform well at school at an earlier age, particularly in middle-class families intending to send their children to universities.

Play is important, and that's the concept that some people find hard to believe.

- David Bjorklund

Providing enough time and room to grow as independent young adults is pivotal to one's mental health. Having this free time is "a really important part in children's healthy development, social development, mental development, emotional development. It's been taken for granted for too long," says Bjorklund.

When given the opportunity to play and have freedom, children are able to grow and intake autonomy. It also provides a sense of capability. "We're all better off if we have a sense that we are important agents in our own lives, that we're competent, at least at some things," he says.

Helicopter parenting doesn’t suddenly halt once the child heads off to college or turns 18. It builds up and tends to continue until the child becomes an adult and needs to begin living their own life and sometimes it even continues into adulthood.

Over involvement in a child's life can create too much dependency and fear of separation. When one is used to sharing every detail of their life and depending on their parents their whole life, it can be difficult to suddenly step into the real world once they become adults.

"When children aren't given the space to struggle through things on their own, they don't learn to problem-solve very well. They don't learn to be confident in their own abilities, and it can affect their self-esteem. The other problem with never having to struggle is that you never experience failure and can develop an overwhelming fear of failure and of disappointing others. Both the low self-confidence and the fear of failure can lead to depression or anxiety,” shares psychologist Chris Meno from Indiana University, who was not involved in the study.

Meno says it’s not uncommon for college students to call their mom multiple times daily and discuss fundamental decisions such as dropping a course or buying something for themselves. She continues that although being close to your child and having a tight relationship can be beneficial, too much dependency and lack of privacy can create low confidence and fear of achieving things independently.

"College used to be the time when you had to figure things out for yourself. But these students haven't learned how to sit with not knowing or vagueness or confusing feelings. At the same time, they have been told that they can be anything they want to be. So when they try to go out and get the 'perfect job' and find they can't get it right away, they feel lost. And they move back in with their parents," says Meno.

She concludes: "Helicopter parents may need to first give themselves a break — of course they want to protect their sons and daughters from the world's perils. But they need to follow this with considering the vital role of developing independence in their child."

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