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Don’t be a helicopter mom: Overprotective parents can hurt their kids

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I recently heard a helicopter mom declare: “I live for my daughter.”

Too bad for that little girl. And too bad for the mom.

A group of studies reviewed in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that being an overprotective parent can negatively impact a child's mental health, contributing to increased levels of anxiety and depression.

Are you a helicopter mom or overprotective parent?

Helicopter parents are overprotective parents who take an excessive interest in their child’s life and wellbeing. You might be a helicopter parent if you: 

  • Make your children the center of your universe
  • Do things for your child they are capable of doing themselves
  • Don’t allow your child to learn from their own mistakes
  • Don’t respect healthy boundaries with your child
  • Try to dictate your child’s actions and decisions

These are some hallmarks of helicopter parenting:

“My kids are my world.”

Parents who make their children the center of their universes mess up their kids, mess up themselves, and in the case of single parents — make serious relationships impossible.

Don’t get me wrong: My kids are the most important people in my life. Every major decision — and pretty much all the little ones, too — I make is with an eye toward what is good for my kids:

  • Where we live
  • What to cook for dinner
  • Whether to drive or fly on our family vacation

As a single parent it can be easy to slip into unhealthy attachment to our kids. Some days, my focus on making a good life for my children is so overwhelming that it can feel all-consuming. But that doesn’t mean I live for them. That would be effed up!

Yes, you are a parent. Maybe that is the most important job you will ever have. (But maybe not — there are plenty of remarkable people who go down in history for contributions that have nothing to do with their offspring.)

The thing with kids is this: they leave. They leave your house when they go to college. They leave you a little when they learn to pump on the swing, and no longer need a push.

They leave you when they go to school for the first time, and when they can cook their own breakfast and earn their own movie money. When they’re teenagers, they have secrets and experiences that you will never share.

Parents are forever changed by that invisible yet palatable tether that ties mothers to their children. But they are not ours. They are but beams of life that pass through our existences.

But some parents do not let their children pass through. They hover and guilt and coddle until that child is afraid to leave — afraid about what will happen to the parent who lives for them.

The children stunt themselves, forgo normal dating, professional and social opportunities en lieu of perceived obligation to the needy parent. Mental health experts call this codependency. I call it pathetic and borderline abusive.

One recent study found that young adults with overbearing parents were more depressed, and suffered “decreased satisfaction with life and lower levels of perceived autonomy, competence, and ability to get along with people.”

This PBS NewsHour report explores the negative effects of helicopter parenting: 

“My kids are my life. My kids are my everything.”

Like I said, I love being a mom, but that is obsessive, lacking boundaries, and puts enormous pressure on your child to make you happy. One study asked 181 mothers to rate how strongly they agreed with these five beliefs involved in intensive parenting:

  1. That moms are the most important people in their kids’ lives
  2. That kids are entirely fulfilling
  3. That children need lots of stimulation
  4. That parenting is very challenging
  5. That parents' lives should revolve around their children.

Turns out that mothers who agree with these statements are more stressed and depressed.

“It makes sense that nominating yourself Commander-in-Chief of your child's life would add some stress to your existence, and if that's all you're ever thinking about it's easy to understand how you'd feel less satisfied too—since kids aren't known for pulling you aside to offer heartfelt thanks for doing such a stellar job of caring for them.”

Are you “living through your child?”

“Living through your child” means that you get your own self-worth, self-esteem and identity through your kids, opposed to your own experiences and accomplishments. Parents who live through their children tend to see their kids as their experience and accomplishment, a form of over-parenting and enmeshment that blurs the lines between parent and child and places the parent’s dreams and goals onto the child, essentially making the child responsible for their parent’s happiness and wellbeing. 

26 reasons being a single mom is awesome

Can I love my child too much? Can a child be too attached to a parent?

It is possible to be too attached to a child, though there is no limit on how much you can love them.

Enmeshment is when a parent and child do not have boundaries in their relationship, and the child is raised to believe that they are to serve the parent — make them happy, fulfilled, loved, and validated.

Narcissistic parents nurture enmeshed relationships with their children, who are not given the opportunity to grow into individuals who care for their own needs. 

In separated and divorced families, enmeshment can often become a case of parental alienation, in which one parent turns the child against the other.

What does Enmeshment (or an enmeshed relationship with family) look like? What causes enmeshment?

“Enmeshment, from the outside, will appear as closeness within the family, but on the inside means the child does not get independence, and their parent is involved in every aspect of their lives,” says Amanda Levison, M.S., LMHC, LPC, CCBT, a professional counselor from Neurofeedback & Counseling Center in Harrisburg, Penn.

“An enmeshed parent will be friends with their child, using them as a confidant and being involved in all decisions they make. This parent will not support their child’s independence unless it is in something they can use to live through their child,” Levison says.

To stop enmeshment is first to recognize the issue. Next would be to set boundaries and to take a step back from one another.

Is enmeshment unhealthy?

“Causes of enmeshment begin with a parent with their psychological

issues, and it falls on the child to make them feel better,” Levison says. “This behavior can be unhealthy because the child will need to consult with their parent for all of their decisions and will feel the need to make decisions based on the parent’s desires.”

Enmeshment in separated and divorced families can become part of parental alienation, in which the enmeshed parent turns the child against the other parent. Research recognizes this as an act of abuse and can cause trauma for the enmeshed child.

How do you stop enmeshment?

Often, enmeshed children must grow up and leave home before they can recognize the unhealthy relationships and heal. “To stop enmeshment is first to recognize the issue,” Levison says.” Next would be to set boundaries and to take a step back from one another.”

How can I stop being a helicopter mom and get a life outside of my child?

Since birth, women are conditioned to believe that our greatest calling is to be a mother. This often leads women to become helicopter moms.

However, this is codependency, and actually can harm your kids — as well as your own sense of self. Here are some ways to prioritize your own needs:

1. The greatest gift I give my children is modeling a full life.

I want them to absorb by osmosis rules of living in the world in a whole, independent way. Much of my motivation to succeed professionally is to show my son and daughter how to do that themselves, but also so they can observe the joy and pride that they, too, can experience.

I want them to see me enjoy long-term friendships, in part because these loved ones also care for Helena and Lucas, and so that my kids understand why such bonds are critical to life.

And I would like them to see me in a long-term romantic relationship, so that they will have a model for loves of their own, but also see their mother supported and adored by a partner.

My goal is to fill my life up in a real way, so that a) they will know how to do that for themselves, and b) feel confident that I am cared for, and can therefor go out into the world as independent adults, unburdened by their mother.

“My ex calls the kids all the time when they are with me.”

2. Glomming onto your children also stunts your ability to have a romantic relationship.

I believe that a couple must put one another before their children — the health of a successful family orbits around a happy couple. This is a tricky transition for many blended families, and I can imagine that it will be for me one day.

While my kids are not the center of my universe, they do top my priority list. I am not sure how I will transition that priority to a husband, but I recognize that it must happen. Single parents who loudly insist that their children will always come first cut off at the knees any potential relationship.

Single parents who declare that they live for their kids signal to potential mates that they are not truly available.

One Saturday night date of mine shared with me a great example of a healthy family relationship.

Over cajun food he described what sounds like a remarkably happy suburban childhood headed by parents who enjoyed a 40-year marriage, five kids and two successful careers.

My date has only the fondest memories of watching his dad court his mom on their weekly date nights and annual parent-only vacations — in addition to the family road trip. Staying home with the babysitter was tons of fun. “My dad made it clear that his relationship with my mom was the center of everything, while he was also the best dad ever,” he said.

What could be a better example of the benefits of putting your romantic partner first?

But what if you don’t have a romantic interest to start with? Read our reviews of online dating sites.

3. Stop putting your child’s needs ahead of your own

A Modern Love column in the New York Times (which I read religiously and am only slightly bitter about the fact the editor Daniel Jones has rejected more than a dozen of my submissions over the years BUT NEVERMIND!) highlighted a 2005 essay by Aylete Waldman about the fact that she puts her husband and their fantastic sex life above their four kids.

The most interesting thing about the essay was the resulting shitstorm of controversy which landed Waldman on a much-viewed Oprah episode during which a hostile audience nearly attacked her. Yes, that essay is a decade old, but it warrants a revisit because parents — mothers most especially — are still expected to make our children the center of our worlds. Waldman wrote:

I do love [my daughter]. But I’m not in love with her. Nor with her two brothers or sister. Yes, I have four children. Four children with whom I spend a good part of every day: bathing them, combing their hair, sitting with them while they do their homework, holding them while they weep their tragic tears. But I’m not in love with any of them. I am in love with my husband.

It is his face that inspires in me paroxysms of infatuated devotion. If a good mother is one who loves her child more than anyone else in the world, I am not a good mother. I am in fact a bad mother. I love my husband more than I love my children.

I love that Waldman challenges the institution that admonishes women for anything other than fulltime adoration of their kids. Waldman’s work includes many of the points I’ve made here on this blog:

  • Putting kids before all else makes them neurotic and robs me of my potential to live the biggest, fullest life that I can — and model for my children that such a life is possible.
  • I’ve urged parents — single moms in particular — to prioritize their health above all else, including family time. After all, you can’t be an energetic mom now if you are overweight, and you are even more likely than single moms overall to burden your children in your old age if you don’t care for your wellbeing now.
  • That despite my attempts to live said full life, I’ve found myself hugging my kids too much because I’m lonely — and that is entirely unfair to my son and daughter. Alas, I am only human.
  • You are free to introduce your kids to a romantic interest at any time of your choosing. Dating is healthy and normal, and does not hurt kids.

Stop feeling guilty.

Want to date? Go for it — AND DON’T FEEL GUILTY!

[10 best dating apps for single parents]

Need a single-mom sex life? NO GUILT FOR YOU – ONLY BOOTY! Need to hit the gym? HIRE A SITTER AND DON’T LOOK BACK!

Looking forward to that business trip even though you have to leave the kids at home? KILL IT!

I’m not worried you’ll neglect the kids. If you are like the professional moms I know, the pendulum swings way in the other direction — and you’re far more likely to neglect yourself.

Every single mom needs a life insurance policy, even moms with no income of their own.

Your kids should be named as beneficiaries.

Term life insurance provider Bestow offers policies up to $1.5 million of insurance, and plans starting at $10/month. Bestow guarantees no medical exam or lab tests, ever.

4. It is good for your kids when you work outside the home for pay

A Harvard Business School study of 50,000 adults found that in 24 countries, the daughters whose moms worked before the girls were 14 years old:

  • Finished more years of education
  • Earned higher salaries
  • Were more likely to be employed and in supervisory roles than their peers whose moms stayed at home

In the United States, the Harvard study found that daughters of working mothers earned 23 percent more than daughters of stay-at-home mothers, and sons spent seven and a half more hours a week on child care and 25 more minutes on housework.

In other words, when moms work for pay, there is more gender equality in the workforce, and more gender equality at home.

5. Stop being ‘just a mom’ and start being a cool woman

I am writing from a charming apartment in Copenhagen (complete with wood floors, white walls, and minimalist, teak furniture — biked parked outside on the cobblestone walk), where I will spend the next three weeks living, working, traveling, hanging out with friends I met last year when I accomplished more or less the same trip.

My kids are with their dad in Greece, visiting family there, and last year, I decided that I deserved to go somewhere fabulous, too.

My return was as cliche’ as my Danish apartment: I felt energized, grateful for my regular life, thrilled to reconnect with my kids, routine and work. The feeling was familiar.

Since I was a teenager I’ve been in love with travel — the more remote, the better. Before kids, I’d lived in France, Ecuador, Bulgaria. Traveled to Laos, around Europe, Brazil, Cuba.

I love that scariness of knowing it is not safe to go where you do not have a hotel booked, but you go anyway. Of the magical way the universe swells up around you to create lifelong friendships and memories that make you who you are. That travel, perhaps rivaling only parenthood, keenly reminds you of your humanity, and possibilities.

I’ve gotten on planes with my kids. Driven across the country with them a few times. I don’t need to tell you it was great, but different. Those single mom road trips were cliches about family travel. This one was cliche about travel-travel.

Ladies, cliches are a cliche for a reason: They are true.

These trips to Europe remind me of who I am. My greatest joys, things that have resonated with me since I can remember. Manon DeFelice, the founder of the recruiting agency for women, tells clients searching for what will make them professionally happy:

“What did you write your high school senior thesis on? That is what you are most passionate about.”

That is true for me:  I wrote that paper arguing why prostitution should be legal, and now here I am advocating for sexual and financial freedom for women every day in a career I love. Ta-da!

By prioritizing my most ancient joys means being a fulfilled person, and being that person for myself, for the world, and my children.

6. Loving your child too much? Get therapy.

Whether you prefer in-person therapy near you, or an online counselor, a good professional can help you understand whether your relationship with your kid is healthy — and how to make it better.

Bottom line: You can love being a mom, but you don’t have to be a helicopter mom

I wrote this post about eight years ago. Today, my children are ages 14 and 12, and I feel even more strongly about the importance of having my own identity, my own experiences and self-worth outside of parenting — and especially strongly that my teenagers have their own experiences away from their parents.

I see now that they are older (as well as observing even more families with teens and young adults) how children benefit when their parents are active people who model productive lives contributing to the world — and not hovering over their over-doted-on offspring, who are ever-more anxious in a world where they have achieved little without their parents’ constant attention. 

It turns out, being a helicopter mom might just lead to the harm that you tried so desperately to protect your kids from for all those years.

Do you feel pressure to sacrifice yourself for motherhood? Did you rediscover yourself? Share your struggles, and journey, in the comments! 

Disclaimer: The opinions and ideas expressed in the article are those of the author(s) and are not promoted or endorsed by Bestow or North American Company for Life and Health Insurance®.


I really struggle with the concept of trying to find myself and live for me when, inost given days, I’m without support and childcare. That falls on me! How do I travel for myself when there isn’t a sitter. How do I make a significant change or just go for what I feel in my heart when I have another little being relying on me. Not to mention, changing when my spouse doesn’t want change. It’s super hard. Wish I had the answers. I feel really sad about it.

I love this article, and all the toxic commentary below of women infuriated that someone could model a full life and still be a good mother. They don’t seem to be able to embrace the complexity of this doesn’t equal neglect but actually giving them more. I’m about to have my first child, I want him to grow up secure, confidant, and independent. I absolutely am in love my husband, and like his parents want to be able to model a relationship that is at the core of the family. They are a true partnership that nourishes the family, where each child has thrived into amazing careers (doctors, lawyers, phds) all coming from self-made parents who worked hard to provide for their family without spoiling them. Their children are spead all over the world now, but they continue to stay a strongly connected family. What a gift it would have been to see a parent who has good friendships, takes care of themselves, balancing their work and life and loves and supports their children. Things don’t have to be exclusive, and I’m so glad women like the author are secure enough to speak up on the millennia of oppressive sacrificial behavior they expect a mother to be. My sister is the icon of the wonderful mother many of these commenters describe. She made her children the center of her world, she quit her job to stay home, she spent every minute loving and nurturing them. She loving says they are her all, her universe. From the inside though, her marriage has crumbled (now to the point of her having online affairs), she is depressed, isolated with no friends, and her health is horrible which she is constantly worried about. Did it have to be that way? Could her children have been just as wonderful and bright while she gave a little more to herself and her marriage? How is this good for her children to think what they see from her is what women should be, we cannot pour from an empty cup. I love her and hope we all can find a way to give ourselves a little more so we can in turn share more with our families. Thank you!

I came across your article at the right time. My friend who I view as a sister was telling me that children have changed me. And that I am living for them. She pointed out that i even reject help from her.

Well she said a lot of things and quite frankly, she’s right. I can’t remember the last time I was joyful. Ever since I gave birth to my son in 2015, I changed from being me to being a mom who lives for her son. And now, 3 kids later, plus I broke up with their dad last year, I’ve created this unhealthy attachment with my kids. I take them everywhere I go and sometimes I feel like they are a burden because I can’t do other things like go out with friends or go for that full body massage.

Thanks for writing this. I’ll start living for me from now on and not for my kids.

Connie in South Africa

“My spouse is my world”

There are lots of women / men who put their spouse at the center of their universe. This is worse than “My kids are my world”.

Someone like this can easliy sacrifice their kids for their marriage / relationship.

There are lots of “real cases” where mother knows that her spouse rapes her kids but stay silent.

So if something must be criticized “My spouse is my world” must be criticized.

Protecting kids is much more important than “romantic desires”.

Aylete Waldman tells that she cannot think a life without her husband.

This is not a healthy relationship this is an “obsessive relationship”.

Moms like Aylete Waldman can become silent parents when their kids are abused by their husbands

Because they cannot leave their husbands for them it is impossible to leave their husbands.

So they can let abuse continue for years.

Don’t you believe that an intellectual & strong woman can do that?

Read Duranheim case in France.

Évelyne Pisier wife of Duranheim protected & defended her husband till she dies which raped her 14 years old son for two years.

She was a feminist & socialist & strong woman.

But she was obsessed with her husband like Aylete Waldman.

It doesn’t mean you have an attachment problem it means everything she does is for the best interest of the child(ren) she’s not clingy she’s not over protective and she doesn’t consume the child life nor ruining their relationships she values and cherish every moment spent with them…i would fix the run on but I don’t care you are absent minded and completely inconsiderate she’s 9/10 a better parent than you.

This article is complete and utter bull. I wish there were mandatory licenses for being a parent. I truly think you would fail to achieve one for the simple fact that you are not only selfish but spout off this nonsense so another woman may buy into it. I’m disgusted. Please, put your own needs a side and spend time with your children. Gosh- I only hope you see how wrong you’ve been then.

you are a whore first and most foremost, who knows northing of kids and your kids will hate you for it don’t worry about the next person when your kids out there probably hating your guts.

Seeing all my friends with children and giving up their lives almost completely really freaked me out. I want children some day, but why do we have to give ourselves up to do so? This article was really eye opening and gave me an ounce of hope for the future… That you can still do you and care for them. THANK YOU!!

I did not leave my single mother. I continued to live with her. I am 44 years old and i am not regretful. And i have never seen my mother as a burden. Yes they tell that for growing up you should leave the nest. But growing up is not about leaving the nest. It is about standing on your own feet. Till 17 years old i stand on my own feet. In my country there is an university exam you enter after high school. I worked really hard and got a very good degree in this exam. This made me a scholarship student in one of the best colleges of the country. I paid no money for dormitory / college / food and university even gave me pocket money. :) These were the best years of my life. After college i returned home and started to work. My mother had some health problems and left her job. So i started to pay for everything. Paid the bills / rent / food …… also cleaned the house. Later i married but did not leave my mother. My mother still lives with me & my elder brother. She is our family. We love and care her. This is my life and i do not regret anything. I do not know if i am living the biggest, fullest life that i can. And i don’t mind this. But i am really happy and hopefull.

Women are following their natural instincts. You don’t like to be judged for being more self focused, and shouldn’t judge other women for being focused on their kids. Let the results speak for themselves when the kids come of age. Every parent has regrets. God forbid your kids end up in the hospital with something serious or worse, because you may come to regret your self focus. And by the way, most men aren’t interested in single mothers, but some will tolerate them. Keep that in the back of your head when you put him first.

So… The author is selfish, not bright at all and is giving bad advise.

If you have children you put them first. If you wanted to put you first then u should not of had children. Are planet is over populated so people who don’t want to look after there kids should not of had them. No one forced u to have them kids.

Why will you make your new husband your top priority? Because if you don’t your new husband leaves you. Nobody wants to live at a house where they are put second. Being put second makes you feel worthless. Even your new husband as an adult cannot suffer to be put second. How can you wait your kids to suffer this? If you put your kids second your kids will probably leave home asap like your new husband. One of my friend could not suffer to be put second by his mother and left home 16 years old. He started to live with his friends. If you want to get rid of your kids put them second. :)

There is a balance to this. Why do we have to play first and seconds putting those we love on teirs? Why can’t kids and partners be equally important in their own box while integrating the family unit ? We don’t need to label first second best or better. We just need to appreciate each unique piece that the different types of relationships contribute to what makes up the big picture of our life . There is nothing wrong with having some “me” time either to fill up your cup in order to have the energy to give to others where the attention is most needed in their respected fields. This is self love . We need to let go of guilt and shame that have haunted us mothers for taking care of our own needs from time to time where others can’t and why put those expectations on others when we know they can’t fulfill them ? Learning to love yourself will generate more love to give to others

I believe that seld love will replenish yourself and that is what can give your children more love. When you are broken you cannot give yourself anymore. I am currently broken. And searching for a way to still be here more than I presently am for my children while trying to cope with losing a child.

Emma you live in a “crystal tower”. You are unaware of the “real world”.

In “real world” there are lots of sexually / physically / verbally abused kids living hell. And their mothers do not protect their kids from their husbands. These mothers put their husbands / marriages first and sacrifice their kids.

“I live for my daughter.” is not so bad. Infact it is “cute”. I admire women & men “who live for their kids”. They are much better than fake-parents “who live for themselves” and neglect / do not protect their kids.

If you want to see something too bad read the horrible child abuse cases / statistics.

This would be a strawman argument fallacy. Emrah perhaps you are projecting a very real experience you are connected to, to which if that’s the case I’m sorry <3. But being in a supportive relationship and prioritizing one's spouse does not equal taking the stance that women would tolerate that man to abuse her children. Every individual has their own ethical boundaries and complexities, and nowhere in this article did Emma endorse or equate this with tolerating abuse or neglecting their children. Sometimes it's hard to imagine people could live a life so different from our own and still be successful, but this is the world we live in <3.

I looked this up to see where I fall in living for my child. I know that as my children got to the age where they were more independent I focused on me. So more recently I began living for myself. I would celebrate my childrens accomplishments. Love them. Teach them. Encourage them. My oldest son is biologically from another man but my husband raised him with me. There was an understanding that he came into this relationship with my son and I. It was always Ocean (my son) and I that was put first by my husband. I chose Oceans happiness over my husband’s. We survived our marriage to 19 years today but we lost Ocean to murder in October 2021. It has been the most awful and difficult thing in my life. Ocean lived out of the house and wasn’t in our daily life but we saw him physically or through facetime and talked with him weekly. My husband asked me did I live for Ocean? I don’t know. I celebrated him, cared for him, raised him, and adored him for his charisma. Now my husband says I’m dying for him because he sees me withering away. It’s not that I want to feel this way or have no desires anymore. I have 3 other children to live for. These children are biologically ours together. This hole in my heart is probably killing the rest of me. I did not restrict my children from living and making their own decisions. I feel I live for them because they make me happy and now knowing what it feels like without one of them is incredibly life threatening. So I ask once they are “on their own” living out of the house with our support and guidance still, how does one continue letting their other children make their own decisions like Ocean did, without worry of this happening to another child? I suppose I lived for them until they lived for themselves. And losing a child in any way is devastating I would rather have been able to control it from not happening.

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