As a parent, there is nothing more important than protecting your children. After all, you brought them into the world, taught them the fundamentals of life and supported their development, from first steps to high school graduation and beyond. However, at some point in life, children will begin to make their own choices and forge their own road. For many adult children, this will be a normal path full of career progress, relationships and maybe even a family of their own. However, for others, the adult world may come with hardships, such as addiction.
Facing addiction from the perspective of a parent can be extremely difficult. Seeing a downward spiral into abuse is a deeply traumatic thing, and it’s not unusual for parents to experience the stages of grief when seeing their beloved child hit rock bottom.
How parents handle a child with addiction can vary from one family to another and one parent to another. Unfortunately, one of the most common reactions is an inclination toward helicopter parenting. When parents find themselves in a troubling situation with no immediate way to offer assistance, it’s not unusual for them to step up involvement and influence, getting involved with every aspect of a child’s life in an effort to control the situation. Usually, helicopter parenting is most prevalent among younger children living at home, but when a teen or adult child is in the throes of addiction, parents may find themselves obsessed with trying to fix the problem.
In the moment, this may seem logical — after all, their child is in distress and there’s seemingly no way out — but overbearing parenting is usually a negative, not a positive, in a child’s life. The relationship between helicopter parenting and mental health is not a good one, and hovering too close and too often can hinder recovery, not help it.
What Is Helicopter Parenting?
Helicopter parenting describes a parenting style in which a parent is overly involved with every aspect of a child’s life rather than helping them to foster a sense of independence. Named after the way helicopters hover, helicopter parenting involves a virtually omnipresent role in a child’s life.
For very young children, this level of involvement is understandable; when children are too young or naive to make their own decisions safely, parents are obligated to engage in every step of a child’s life. However, as they approach middle school or high school, stepping back is usually recommended. And when children head off to college or move into their own house or apartment, a parent’s role should take a backseat. In a helicopter parenting situation, this will never happen; parents find themselves unable to let go or unwind themselves from their child’s life.
Helicopter parenting can usually be defined by three common acts:
- Information Seeking: Information seeking involves soliciting far too much information from a child about their life, including knowing their schedule hour by hour or insisting on excessive details about every person or event.
- Direct Interference: Direct interference involves parents interjecting themselves into events or personal relationships, like trying to resolve roommate conflicts or interfering with romantic partners.
- Autonomy-Limiting Behaviors: This characteristic refers to limiting a child’s free will and choice by doing things like overriding a child’s preferred school schedule or signing them up for sports or activities they are not interested in.
Helicopter parenting is usually derived from positive intentions, but the outcomes are generally far more negative than many parents realize. Studies involving helicopter parenting have been directly linked to mental health struggles, including anxiety and depression. Other studies have also noted links to a condition called “maladaptive perfectionism,” in which a child feels they must be perfect and will become severely critical and self-deprecating in the face of mistakes or poor performance.
Helicopter Parenting and Addiction
Addiction is a situation unlike virtually any other in a parent’s eyes. Seeing a child spiral in a negative way can be very upsetting, and the pressure to try to interfere, to make a difference, is intense. When addiction rears its ugly head, it’s not uncommon for parents to find themselves lost without a way forward. In some cases, this leads to helicopter parenting, even when helicopter parenting wasn’t prevalent earlier in life.
When signs of addiction appear, parents may become paranoid and anxious about worsening substance abuse. They may take steps to monitor a child at all times to prevent an opportunity to use drugs, cut off financial resources to prevent the purchase of drugs or alcohol or try to prevent time with friends or romantic partners.
Constant monitoring like this can actually hurt a quest for recovery; children who abuse drugs or alcohol may begin to hide use, increase use to handle the stress of a parent’s behavior or turn to extreme measures to move out or further away from a parent’s negative presence.
In some ways, recovery is even more stressful than active addiction. The desired outcome has come to pass: Substance abuse is in the rear-view mirror. However, the possibility for relapse is lurking around every corner. Further, it can be hard to trust a child who has lied or stolen to facilitate an addiction, even when all signs point to a change in behavior.
In order to attempt to reduce the likelihood of relapse or make sure there are no signs of drug use, parents may go overboard in this time. It’s not unusual for helicopter parents to insist on meeting all new friends, get involved with romantic relationships, interfere at work or become aggressively involved in their child’s schedule. Unfortunately, this can actually detract from a successful recovery, putting unnecessary stress on a recovering substance abuser and increasing the likelihood of relapse.
How to Recover From Helicopter Parenting
As a parent, it can be hard to reign in helicoptering behaviors, even with the awareness that they are not helping their child’s recovery. These tips can help parents recover from a drive to over-parent their recovering children.
- Create Space: Living at home is a common choice for many adult children in recovery, making it easy for parents to hover. However, independence is important. Create space by ensuring children have their own rooms free of parental pressure. If possible, consider helping to subsidize an apartment or housing with relatives to alleviate pressure.
- Enter Family Therapy Programs: Family therapy can be a very effective way for parents and children to discuss emotional challenges and personal feelings in a safe way. With the aid of a trained professional, parents can learn to curb their behaviors while further exploring how the recovery process works. Group therapy can also be a good choice; this setting can help families and recovering addicts to learn from one another.
- Encourage Healthy Habits: Overbearing behavior can prevent children from making happy, healthy choices, especially when parents attempt to control schedules or manage time. If a child is indicating an interest in joining outpatient alumni programming, going out to eat with new sober friends or even taking up exercise, it’s a parent’s job to encourage this behavior rather than attempt to micromanage it.
Parenting is one of the hardest jobs anyone can ever take on, and it only becomes more challenging with addiction in the picture. However, learning how to separate from helicopter parenting behaviors can make it more likely that children will succeed in recovery, paving the way for a healthier family dynamic and a happier relationship.