BLOG: Transitioning from Helicopter Parent to Air Traffic Controller Parenting Style

Dr. Carey Heller
Dr. Carey Heller

Dr. Carey Heller: Licensed Psychologist in Bethesda, MD specializing in evaluation and treatment of ADHD/executive functioning and co-occurring issues.

The term helicopter parent has been around for quite awhile with the current generation of children, teens, and young adults. Essentially, it refers to parents who micromanage their children in most aspects of their life. Parents do this for different reasons or a combination of them. Some do it because their children or teens have trouble in certain areas (i.e., keeping track of assignments), feel they are incapable of doing items without significant assistance, and they do not want them to fail. Others feel like it ends up being easier to help or do things for their children instead of letting them do it themselves. In other instances, parents’ own anxiety or worry about their children failing at something leads to the helicopter parent mentality.

Regardless of the reason, being a helicopter parent has the potential to lead to several issues for kids, especially in adolescence and young adulthood. The more prominent issues are that children do not learn to do things for themselves, make their own decisions, develop resiliency, and be independent at increasing degrees as they grow up. In addition, some children and teens develop decreased motivation to do things for themselves and some also experience anxiety when left to do things on their own.

At some point, most individuals are going to have to grow up, be on their own, and be self-sufficient. This means being able to keep track of assignments in college/graduate school, get up and be places on time, keep track and pay bills, and navigate conflicts with professors, co-workers, and bosses. However, when people struggle with these items, part of learning to do things for themselves is also about the resiliency to know how and when to seek assistance.

The big question that comes next, is how does one get out of the helicopter parenting style? I like to focus on this idea as transitioning to the air traffic controller style instead. Using this analogy, an air traffic controller helps guide pilots, especially during transition periods (i.e., take offs and landings). They are not flying the plane, though they can theoretically offer guidance, and can alert pilots to things that they may not be able to perceive ahead of time themselves (i.e., rough weather, slippery runway).

Similarly, with parenting, the air traffic controller style involves guiding your children, teens, and young adults, by offering suggestions, assistance if desired, and guidance when necessary. At the same time, it gives your child, teen, or adult more autonomy to navigate life themselves, develop resiliency, learn from their mistakes, and be better able to recognize as well as seek out assistance when needed.

While implementing the idea of the air traffic controller model is going to vary based on each child’s, adolescent’s, and young adult’s individual needs, the concept is something to strive for if desired. In fact, thinking about your parenting style and questioning yourself in situations as to whether you are being a helicopter parent or air traffic controller parent can serve as a way to get you to take a step back and think about how you are handling parenting situations.

Parenting is almost never easy for most parents. However, the more you help your child, teen, or young adult to be independent, resilient, and self-sufficient, the easier parenting is likely to be on a regular basis. Of course, there are going to be bumps in the road (or turbulence to use the air analogy), but even navigating those rough patches will be easier if your child has resiliency, motivation, and other common traits associated with individuals who are able to be at least fairly independent based on what would be typical for someone of a given age.

Copyright 2020 Carey Heller, Psy.D.

*Disclaimer: The previous information is intended as general guidance based on my professional opinion, does not constitute an established professional relationship,  and should not replace the recommendations of a psychologist or other licensed professional with whom you initiate or maintain a professional relationship*

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