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'Helicopter parenting' linked to behavioural issues later in life, study finds

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'It's well-intentioned parents trying to do their best,' says a psychiatrist

Psychiatrist says sometimes the best thing to do is back off and give your child space to live and learn

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – School has been out for around three weeks now. How closely have you been hovering over your kids? A recent study links “helicopter parenting” in a child’s early years to behavioural problems later on in life.

The joint Swiss-U.S. study published by the American Psychological Association finds children whose parents are over-controlling during their toddler years are less likely to be able to control their emotions and impulses as they get older.

“It’s well-intentioned parents who are trying to do their best,” explains Dr. Shimi Kang, a psychiatrist and clinical associate professor at UBC.

“But by doing too much — by stepping in too soon, too often — they’re not allowing their child to build their own independent problem-solving resiliency strength that they need of mind to really face life challenges.”

She calls it “doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.”

The study published by the APA last month finds, “although many overprotective parents may be trying to protect their child and shield him or her from harm, these parents may be receptive to parent training to afford their child the opportunity to develop appropriate self-regulatory skills and better overall adjustment by preadolescence.”

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As a parent herself, Kang knows it’s a stressful job. But sometimes the best thing to do is back off and give your child space to live and learn.

“And sometimes, it’s the hardest thing to do. I do say that stress is the number one health epidemic of the 21st century, and parents are really prone to that. Stress releases this freeze, fight, or flight response.”

She says being an over-protective parent is a “freeze.”

“We’re stressed and anxious, so we freeze, in terms of we want to overprotect our kids. We want perfectionism, which is rising in general, partly because of social media… We want things to go really well, which means we micro-manage. We tie the shoelace, get the lunch ready, talk to the teacher, deal with the bullies. All of these things really have come together at this point in time.”

She feels the pace of life for kids these days is another factor. “Kids are over-scheduled. They’re sleep-deprived. All of that, in combination, is really impacting their mental health.”

Tigers, jellyfish and dolphins: Approaches to parenting

Kang likens helicopter parents to “tigers” — authoritarian and over-bearing. Her advice to parents is to find a balance.

“Don’t be a helicopter tiger. But we also don’t want to be the opposite, which would be a permissive parent. The metaphor is the jellyfish — an animal lacking structure, lacking rules, lacking attention and focus. That also causes all kinds of issues.”

She says if you can find the middle ground, you’ll be a “dolphin” parent.

“If you think of the animal, it is firm, but flexible… There’s rules, there’s expectations, the parent is present — they help out, when needed — but there’s flexibility for independence, independent problem-solving, autonomy, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes.”

Kang says research suggests “dolphin” style leads to the best mental health, resilience, social skills, and self-motivation, and even academic success.

 РWith files from Dean Recksiedler