“Helicopter Parent” was coined in the late 60’s by Dr. Haim Ginott, who quoted a boy describing his mother, who “hovers over me like a helicopter…” Although in light use through the late 1990’s, the term’s usage gained momentum in the early 2000’s as a new generation of wired and wireless young adults, raised in the everyone-gets-a-trophy 80’s and 90’s began appearing on college campuses. College administrators were appalled that parents were calling their children to wake them up for class, or worse, calling professors and administrators to complain about instructors, assignments, and grades. The times had changed.
Much has been said about a trend in waning young adult resiliency, and many fingers have been pointed at the trophy-for-participation culture and the Helicopter Parent, but I believe there is a key distinction to be made here. There is the reactive Blackhawk Helicopter Parent - the one who hovers, guns at the ready, to fend off all unpleasantness, thus eliminating the opportunity for their child to experience challenges and develop resiliency skills. It is now a fact that colleges and universities are having to deal with this new cohort within the student culture, and the trend is creeping both up and down the ages. These types of Helicopter Parents can now be seen circling everywhere, from kindergarten classrooms to Fortune 500 job searches (please - don’t be a part of the 4% of parents who actually attend their college graduate’s first job interview!).
But not all helicopters are Blackhawks, and with all of the complaining about the demise and collapse of our current generation of young people, and all of the fingers being pointed at a tendency to over-parent, it may be time to take a step back and recognize, even congratulate the successes of Helicopter Parents of students with learning differences, autism spectrum traits, and mental health challenges. For the most part, these are not the much-maligned Blackhawks, but rather News Crews, hovering to keep tabs on their child’s tenuous development, in order to inform the next best possible steps. They are Transporters, who shuttle students to and from various support networks, plucking and depositing them deftly around the city. And they are Life-Flight crews, who occasionally do have to swoop in to perform critical emergency or disaster relief, when their student’s unique challenges call for a level of sophisticated advocacy beyond the child’s years.
The fact that more and more of these atypical students are even making it to college is a testament to these “support” Helicopter Parents’ hard work, determination, willingness to fight for their child’s rights, and capacity to overcome personal, familial, community, and institutional resistance, friction, and challenges. These parents have had to become experts in accommodating and supporting their children’s anxiety, depression, addiction, autism, ADHD, psychopharmacology, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia and (diminished) Executive Functioning or Social Pragmatics. They have had to sit through countless hours of IEP or 504 meetings, teach the teachers special education, find and work with tutors or therapists, and constantly hunt down the next opportunity to help their child grow. These are not parents who have hovered needlessly, instead, these are parents whose children have developed because of, not despite, their parent’s continuous involvement and oversight. These are not just Helicopter Parents, they are Advocates, Educators, and Partners in their children’s development, and they deserve support and appreciation from all of us.
With all the work that it’s taken to get these students through high school, when it comes to their children making real strides towards independence as young adults, these parents are faced with the real challenge of having to hold back on and suppress the (effective and necessary) patterns that eighteen-plus years of hovering have ingrained. All that hard work and hands-on attention was for a purpose, but clearing the air space so an adolescent can grow UP into an independent young adult takes even more courage, skill, and support for their parents than did all the years of necessary circling. Letting go of those tendencies also means learning new skills, and techniques, to practice, perfect and lean on if and when challenges arise.
Looking for a program which will provide your young adult with the support (or supervision) they need to be safe, but also provide the opportunity to grow, is a challenging process. Matching supports and services with strengths and needs takes time, research, and the willingness to go down a few dead-end trails before finding the next path to progress. Don’t put away those helicopter pilot skills just yet, either - parents should be an active part in the process of evaluating placements - but be emotionally prepared to receive some assistance in setting the helicopter down, as clearing the airspace becomes a parent’s primary role, as you learn to develop a new type of parental relationship with your emerging young adult.
ABOUT THE AUTHORJake Weld holds a masters degree in education and has over twenty years of experience in traditional, LD, and therapeutic schools, adolescent and young adult programs, and conventional, wilderness, and residential settings. He has served as the Executive Director of a therapeutic boarding school, the Assistant Headmaster of a specialized LD boarding school, and as the Academic and Program Director of various schools and programs. He is currently the Director of Admissions and Business Development for Mansfield Hall, a specialized college support program in Burlington, VT, and Madison, WI.