The difference between “safety net” parenting & “helicopter” parenting

In this podcast (episode #500) and blog, I talk about the difference between “safety net” parenting and “helicopter” parenting.

To help our children develop their sense of autonomy and build identity, we as parents and caregivers need to know how to get involved in our children’s lives without smothering them. I know this can be hard at times, especially when we feel the need to constantly protect our children from all the hard things in life. However, if we try to do this, we can end up impacting their growth and mental resilience, which will affect their ability to learn how to manage and deal with the challenges of life. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean just abandoning our children to fend for themselves. As parents and guardians, we should care for and nurture our children in a way that prepares them for life as an adult. This is very different from what is known as “helicopter parenting,” that is taking a controlling or excessive interest in the life of your child. 

Helicopter parenting has several characteristics, including feeling the need to constantly shadow your child, directing and filling their every movement, and not giving them enough alone time to play or grow freely. It takes away opportunities for a child to learn and develop healthy life skills and habits, which impacts a child’s mental growth, sending them the message that “My parents don’t trust me to do this on my own, so there must be something wrong with or lacking in me”. 

Helicopter parenting can affect a child’s self-esteem and identity, especially if the parent or caregiver is always there to clean up their mess instead of teaching the child that “It’s okay to make a mistake, and here’s how you can make things better.” Consequently, the child does not learn how to cope with loss, disappointment, or failure, which impacts their mental development as they age. This kind of parenting style has even been associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression in children, which can get worse as they progress into adulthood unless managed. 

A far better approach to raising children is “safety net parenting”. This kind of parenting makes space for a child to struggle, allowing them to experience emotions like disappointment and sadness, and then helps them to work through their feelings safely without judgment. It teaches the child to have a mindset that learns and grows and isn’t afraid of failure. 

To understand this style of parenting, imagine your child is learning to be an acrobat. You nervously watch them climb to the top of the ladder, slipping periodically on the rungs. Then you watch as they stand on the tiny ledge—they are about to launch themselves onto a swing or walk on a tightrope. See yourself as the safety net below; you have your arms open wide to catch your child if they fall, but only after they have struggled and tried. You are there to save them from dejection and to bounce them back up again so they can try once more. You are the foundation that gives them the courage to keep going—to practice walking that tightrope, swinging through the air, or performing spectacular gymnastic feats. 

A key part of this style of parenting is making space for negative or upsetting emotions. We can start doing this by encouraging our child to embrace their emotions instead of fearing them or suppressing them. As a parent or guardian, this means watching how we respond to our child when they are struggling, and avoiding saying things like “Don’t be so sensitive” or “It isn’t that bad.” We should encourage our children to embrace their emotions as messengers, telling them that something is going on in their lives that they need to look at and address. We should let them know that it is okay to feel things like sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety and so on, and that these are normal human reactions to life that we all experience (even us as parents!).   

Once they feel like what they are going through has been heard and acknowledged, then you can walk them through the mind management Neurocycle process, so that they, like you as a parent, can learn how to better manage how you think, feel and choose in the moment. This is an invaluable life skill to teach your children, which is why it forms the foundation of my upcoming book on children and mental health,  How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Messwhich is now available for preorder

First, walk your child through Gathering Awareness of how they are feeling by observing their warning signals more deeply. For example:

- “I feel worried and frustrated.” (emotional warning signal)

- “I have an upset tummy.” (bodily sensation warning signal)

- “I want to cry and not talk to anyone.” (behavior warning signal)

- “I hate school.” (perspective warning signal)

Next, walk them through Reflecting and Writing/Playing/Drawing what they feel, which will help them better understand what their warning signals above are pointing to. You can encourage them to ask themselves questions like: 

Why do I feel sad and frustrated?

Why is my tummy sore?

Why do I want to cry and not talk to anyone? 

The Recheck step will help your child work out how to make the situation better. In this step, encourage your child to explore their feelings and thoughts and try to find a way to make what happened to them better.

Lastly, the Active Reach step is like taking a “treatment” or “medicine” each day to help their thinking and feelings get better, which helps your child come up with ways they can respond when they are feeling overwhelmed or unwell. This step is characterized by actions your child can do that are pleasant and happy, which stabilizes what they have learned and anchors them in a peaceful place of acceptance.  

For more on children’s mental health, listen to my podcast (episode #500). If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).   

Preorder my new book How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess before August 7th, 2023 to receive exclusive bonuses, including access to a 1-hour webinar + Q&A session on back-to-school tips and strategies to help your child mentally prepare for the year ahead! You can preorder here.     

This podcast is sponsored by:    

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Podcast Highlights

2:20, 9:10 What helicopter parenting is & how it impacts children

14:35 How safety net parenting helps children build up mental resilience 

19:00, 27:30 Using mind management & the Neurocycle to help your child clean up their mental mess 

This podcast and blog are for educational purposes only and are not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.

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