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New Study Reveals The Ironic Consequences Of Helicopter Parenting

Want well-rounded, stable children? Give them opportunities to self-regulate from a young age. Dragon Images/Shutterstock

Being minutely involved in your children’s hour-to-hour, day-to-day activities may stem from a place of love and a desire to ensure their future success, yet this “helicopter” parenting style could be sabotaging their ability to grow into well-balanced people.

According to a new study in Developmental Psychology, children whose mothers displayed overcontrolling tendencies toward them at age 2 were less able to regulate their own emotions and behaviors at ages 5 and 10 than those whose moms took a more relaxed approach.


“Parents who are over-controlling are most often very well-intentioned and are trying to support and be there for their children,” co-author Dr Nicole Perry of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, told The Guardian. “However, to foster emotional and behavioral skills parents should allow children to experience a range of emotions and give them space to practice and try managing these emotions independently and then guide and assist children when [or] if the task becomes too great.”

As obvious as this advice may sound, Dr Perry and her colleagues from the Universities of North Carolina and Zurich sought to back up common sense with scientific evidence.

Their investigation followed 422 children from age 2 to 10 in order to examine the relationship between caregiver behavior and children’s emotional regulation (ER) and inhibitory control (IC): technical terms for the skills of managing frustration in order to complete tasks and withholding responses (often outbursts) or actions that are inappropriate, respectively. Past research has indicated that these two abilities, essential for any human attempting to navigate the world, are largely informed by how much practice at self-control children are given by their parents early in life.  

At the first study visit, the authors determined the degree of control expressed by each child’s mother by observing them during a 4-minute play session and subsequent 2-minute clean-up session. Three years later, when the children were five, their behavior was evaluated through reports from their school teachers and in-office tests (quite comically, emotional regulation was gauged by children’s reactions when an experimenter took candy away from them and ate it in front of them).


At age 10, the children’s behavior was assessed again through teacher reports and the children’s answers to a personality survey.

As the researchers predicted, children whose mothers were less controlling during toddlerhood had higher ER and IC at age 5, which was in turn associated with more emotional maturity, better social skills, and greater academic productivity at age 10.

“Thus, children who develop the ability to effectively dampen negative arousal in emotionally charged contexts, and inhibit behavioral responses that are inappropriate for the current situation, appear to have an easier time adjusting to the increasingly difficult environmental demands of the preadolescent school context,” they conclude.

Of course, the methodology is not perfect. One major limitation is that parenting style, something that changes as a child grows, was only assessed once and by watching a mere six minutes of mother-child interaction. What if she was just having a really bad day?


In addition, there was no accounting for the impact of other parental figures, meaning that the emotional burden of overbearing dads has gone overlooked. Happy Father's Day!


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