Most people are familiar with the term helicopter parent. It came into popular usage in the early 2000s to describe the time when a child goes off to college and the parents won’t give up control, even to the point of calling professors on their child’s behalf.
A fairly new phenomenon reverses those roles as adult children begin to take more active roles in their aging parents’ lives, hovering overhead, trying to prevent disasters. The upshot for everyone is often the same — anger and stubbornness, leading to protests and arguments, whether a college student or an aging parent.
Both generations have the same goals: independence and acknowledgement of their capabilities. For an adult child not to understand that about their parent can lead to tension, especially since the child is seeming to imply that the parent might get hurt.
In the Wall Street Journal article, “Who’s in charge here? Aging parents resist interfering ‘Helicopter Children,’” author Clare Ansberry notes, “There’s a fine line between being an appropriately concerned adult child and an overly worried, helicopter one. ... If a parent is in an accident, it might be time to talk about driving. ... But if Mom doesn’t want to wear a hearing aid, it might be wise not to nag. Maybe she doesn’t want to listen at the moment.”
Researchers say that unless the parent is cognitively impaired, children need to respect the parent’s decision.
This can be extremely difficult for adult children, because “even small, well-intentioned acts can send the wrong message to parents,” says Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist and author. “If a parent fumbles with the key when trying to unlock a door, kids should be patient and wait, rather than grabbing the key and taking over.”
Here’s Langer’s most important reason for patience: “While trying to be helpful, the message, deliberate or not, is that you are competent, and your parent isn’t.”
Seeing a situation through your loved ones eyes can lead to compassion, which is necessary to dealing with someone not functioning as they used to.
How would you like to be treated? You want respect, right? And peaceful conversation, not one that elevates blood pressure and heart rates.
This effort can be helped along by having open dialogues with your parents before problems arise and asking how they would like to resolve potential events.
I have a friend who faced this issue recently with both parents, in their 90s. She says, “I see my job as facilitating their wishes. Sometimes adult children, in an effort to do the best for their parents, push what they think is right over what their folks want. But I believe people of any age should be allowed their independence to the extent they can remain safe, and I’m willing to assume a certain amount of risk in favor of their happiness and independence.
“My father, now widowed, feels good that he can be out and about without me hovering over him.”
Yes, a time may come when you’ll have to step in and help. Plan what you’ll say before each discussion. Gather all your patience. And then just simply show your love. These steps will probably have to be repeated several times before you find measurable success, but not rushing the process can only help.
The Wall Street Journal’s David Solie gives some great suggestions for how to avoid becoming a helicopter child:
- Unless your parent has dementia, don’t make decisions for him or her. Discuss matters and remember he or she has a right to take informed risks.
- If you and your parents don’t agree on their level of competence, consult a professional together.
- Don’t go through your parents’ mail or screen their calls unless asked.
- Pick your battles. If a parent is getting lost or has stopped bathing, talk about what help he or she might need to remain independent. But if his or her clothes don’t match, get over it.
- If a parent has cataracts in both eyes and continues to drive at night, ask the primary-care physician to intervene.
- If your parents forget to turn off the stove, don’t jump to the conclusion they can’t stay in their home. Look into devices that turn stoves off automatically.
- Use classic “I” language, such as, “I am concerned about you being in a two-story house after your heart attack.” Avoid: “You can’t live here anymore.”
And remember to take care of and be kind to yourself. What you’re asking of you during this challenging time is enormous.
Susan Crosby is a Lodi author and a member of the Lodi Senior Citizens Commission.