Sam Dylan Finch+ Your Authors @samdylanfinch Words on mental health & being human. 🌦 Writer. Optimist. Gentle soul. 🍓 Editor @Healthline, Columnist @Greatist 🌿 Jun. 30, 2019 7 min read + Your Authors

I want to talk about "helicopter parenting" because every time I see a silly post or agitated old journalist going on about it, a part of me just... aches.

"Helicopter parenting" can be a front for abusive behavior. And we need to stop overlooking that connection.


This thread is going to involve a preface: What I'm sharing involves people that I love. This is speaking purely from my personal experience, and I'm holding two very paradoxical truths: That we can do a lot of harm to people we also love very much. Hold that with me, if you can.

My parents were "helicopter parents." They white-knuckled their way through parenting, and that acute, unmanaged fear had a lasting, severe impact on my functioning well into adulthood. It's why I live with complex trauma and it became a trigger for my developing OCD.

Both my parents are survivors, in some form, of significant trauma. Their stories aren't mine to tell, but I offer this because I genuinely believe a lot of the parents we describe as "helicopter parents" are struggling to manage significant pain and fear.

I was the kid that couldn't go to sleepovers at friends' houses. I was the kid that wasn't allowed to leave my parents' sight for a lot of my life. I was the kid that wasn't allowed to have a lock on my door. But here's the thing: That didn't change much when I got older.

As a teenager, I wasn't allowed to go to Barnes & Noble because "that's where predators find their victims." I had parental locks on my computer that were designed for ages 12 and under until I was in COLLEGE. My curfew was 9 pm until I moved out at age 21.

I was given a flip-phone in college, in which my phone records were monitored, because my parents only wanted me to use it in emergencies to call them. I wasn't allowed to know my social security number or any money of my own (I had to get these in secret at around age 20).

I wasn't allowed to take naps because it would "disrupt my sleep at night." I wasn't allowed to take photographs of myself because my parents feared I would post them online and be stalked. I wasn't allowed to have access to any form of social media until college.

When I was in high school, I wasn't allowed to cross the street. Literally. My friends would cross the road to get Subway after school — I wasn't allowed to cross the street or leave school. I wasn't allowed to go to other cities and rarely was allowed to go to a friend's house.

I was required to have my parents informed of where I was at all times, well into university. And the only reason that stopped is because I moved out when I was 21. It was a move I had to literally coordinate in secret.

I had to "steal" my own social security number from my university's admissions system, so I could then secretly open a bank account. The reasoning being that I couldn't be "trusted" to manage those responsibilities.

I never got to see any of the college mail that arrived at our house because my parents threw it away. They decided where I went to college. They never told me I could take out loans and they interfered with my attempts at going anywhere else.

This is a tiny, tiny glimpse into what "helicopter parenting" actually meant for a lot of us: Complete social isolation, total lack of autonomy or privacy, an ongoing narrative that the world was fundamentally unsafe, and a dynamic that essentially erased our sense of personhood.

When I left "home," I didn't know how to function. I was afraid to go outside without another person with me. I didn't know anything about the outside world because I actually hadn't been a part of it. I had panic attacks and I started binge drinking.

When I got into a master's program in California, I had to drop out after a year because I'd become completely homebound. I couldn't go anywhere without a petrifying fear that I would be harmed.

I don't say any of this to blame or shame my parents. Because I understand (not accept, but I do understand) the place of deep fear and anguish that all of this behavior came from. They didn't feel safe growing up. They didn't know how to make me feel safe by extension.

When we talk about "helicopter parents," it's a slippery slope. Control abuse is a thing. And when you have parents who isolate their children, impart hyperbolic fears of danger, and don't allow them to differentiate and become their own autonomous people... you are harming them.

And this is where that fawning mechanism kicks in for me... if you believe the world is fundamentally unsafe, you're going to work overtime to try to make every relationship feel secure and try to prevent harm, because NO ONE can be trusted. 

These are parents who, when observing a child's mental health issues, will say something to the effect of, "Why should I send them to a therapist? They should be able to talk to ME."

A twitter thread can't adequately capture the ways in which I truly believed the world was unsafe and that I could not trust myself to navigate any of it. We watched America's Most Wanted regularly as a family activity. I really thought every time I went outside, I was in danger.

But that's because my parents also believed that. Trauma is generational. And instead of making jokes about "helicopter parents," we should be recognizing that these are parents that could be unwell and may actually need support, and their kids may need a meaningful intervention.

A lot of the time, when we talk about signs to look for with kids who are experiencing abuse or neglect, there's this idea that the parents will be absent or gruff. But in actuality, that is a stereotype — the over-involved, deeply concerned parent is not exempt.

If anything, the over-involvement and concern could be a form of control, trying to ensure that they can continue isolating their child to maintain as much control as possible. You can't assume that a parent that's very present is inherently a better or more "fit" parent.

I just wanted to share this piece of my story because "helicopter parenting" has become something of a cultural joke, but it's not. A lot of us who experienced this as kids have lasting trauma from those experiences. And these parents are more often than not suffering as well.

I also wanted to share because I rarely hear stories from people who had an upbringing like mine. There's so much brainwashing involved, and going out into the real world felt like being dropped into the middle of a jungle with zero tools to hack through it. It's terrifying.

And I will say, even through all of this, I see my parents as deeply human, deeply flawed, but yes, still entirely worthy of my love. I come from a working class family, many of whom are recent immigrants. This shit is complicated. We have a much stronger relationship now.

I can hold the sense of anger and betrayal that I feel, while also recognizing that my parents were not afforded the tools and knowledge to be able to heal. With a parent working at a truck factory day in and day out, theories about complex trauma aren't exactly accessible.

It's also a big reason why I'm the mental health writer and advocate that I am today — because families like mine SHOULD be able to find comprehensive information about how emotions work, how the body stores trauma, how to manage anxiety and fear-based intrusive thoughts.

This piece of my story is so difficult to share because I have a lot of love for both my parents. I'm not always on the side of "intention is irrelevant" because I think it IS relevant when we're talking about reconciliation, and where to set boundaries moving forward.

(I also think folks with class privilege really just don't get the whole "hey my mom doesn't read? I'm not sure how this blog post you're sending me could've helped her." Rant for another day.)

tl;dr... we need to bring a mental health and trauma-informed perspective to EVERY cultural discussion, especially where families of origin are concerned. "Helicopter parenting" often conceals abusive family dynamics under the guise of care. We need to unpack that WAY more.

You can follow @samdylanfinch.


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