A mother with her teen daughter, looking over their phones


I’m A Helicopter Parent And I Don’t See How I Could Be Anything But Right Now

Nov 2, 2020

A couple of years ago in Missouri, I took my first helicopter ride. It was smooth, awe-inspiring and it gave us a different perspective of the miles of coastline in Lake of the Ozarks. Helicopters, it turns out, are pretty impressive.

And right now, by many definitions, I am a helicopter parent — and I refuse to apologize for that, because I am also a special needs parent and a parent raising kids during a global pandemic.

"Lately, I’ve been wondering: why is helicopter parenting a bad thing?"

Lately, I’ve been wondering: why is helicopter parenting a bad thing?

My world consists of several close friends who have children and teenagers with various disabilities from autism to FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder), learning disabilities and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). This fall, when school returned in its various oddball forms in Ontario and when post-secondary launched everything online instead of in person, we all recalibrated for a bit. Then many of us struggled quietly.

On one of those days when I was about to rip my hair out, I answered the phone to find a close friend with a youth who has autism experiencing the exact same scenario we were seeing in our home.

“There’s literally no way to win,” I said. “The world screams your son or daughter should be capable of doing school independently by now. So, you wait, or step back and they implode or explode and suddenly the repercussions are dramatic for the whole family.”

“Or you are labelled 'helicopter parent' and society judges you for that,” she added.

“OMG, yes, that exactly,” I said.

Paula's adopted daughter has FASD. Read what that's like for their family here.

Being a special needs parent

My youngest is in high school and my oldest just started first year university. Parents of special needs kids sometimes do this dance at the start of a new school year, where they take a step back and give kids the chance to find their footing. It's also to give teachers the opportunity to create a relationship, showing they understand and have read the IEP (individual education plans), and have noted the accommodations or modifications and put them in play.

This year, that was heightened because it seems everyone is squeezing more material into less time, delivering it often online, with all the accompanying tech pitfalls and issues. It's a two-dimensional learning environment for a lot of kids.

"... sometimes I'm labeled unfairly right out of the gate — especially as the parent of a child with an invisible disability."

Both of my students indicated they could handle it. This dance at the start of each academic year also includes assessing where your child is developmentally. Over the summer, they grow and mature. So, I wait to see if this is the year they will take control of time management and speak up inside school when issues arise.

Will they grab the parachute and pull the cord in time?

Kids with special needs are forever hovering between two worlds. There’s the world of what their developmental age and stage is, and then there’s what it says on the birth certificate, the actual chronological age. Many people will see a kid is 17 or 18 and they will make a series of assumptions and have a list of expectations. And as a parent of a kid with special needs, I know that these two ages are often wildly different.

So, I wait, and I hover on standby and sometimes I'm labeled unfairly right out of the gate — especially as the parent of a child with an invisible disability. I want them to succeed, and the world demands independence — teach them to be independent NOW. By 15 or 20, they should be there, clearing multiple milestones, capable of emailing a teacher, or scheduling in time to study or remembering a deadline — and there should be no reason to be a helicopter parent anymore.

Paula signed her teen up for in-person schooling this fall, but says it's been more like "barely there." Read their experience here.

Pandemic meets helicopter parenting

But here’s the thing: we are also in the middle of a pandemic. So, the way I see it, the only way to handle things right now is helicopter parenting.

In a global pandemic, suddenly I have no other choice than to be a helicopter parent. So, can we stop labelling parents "helicopters" as if it’s a bad thing? Right now, in the second wave, I don’t know how I would be keeping my family afloat and safe, mentally or physically, if I weren't a helicopter parent.

"... I don’t know how I would be keeping my family afloat and safe, mentally or physically, if I weren't a helicopter parent."

Then there's adding being a special needs parent to the pandemic parenting/crisis parenting situation we are all in.

Helicopter, in my world, could just as easily be replaced with: attentive, engaged, involved, special needs, autism or FASD parent. Do I hover? Sure, sometimes, I do — because I have teenagers and they have a range of mental health diagnoses. If I don’t hover, they fail, repeatedly sometimes, and in a way that costs us all financially and emotionally when my fuel tank, energy and emotional reserves are already operating at close to empty often.

Where some kids learn from consequences it has been proven that many who have organic brain damage such as FASD, do not. The cause and effect thinking area is broken. Time management is not an area where they do well at all. This year, everyone in my home has a high level of pandemic anxiety and that’s interfering with milestones and daily routines.

To be honest, I also feel like COVID has frozen development in a lot of teens.

This dad doesn't get labels for parenting like "helicopter" or "free-range." Read why he's over it here.

This is not the year to fly off

This week, I emailed a post-secondary institution on behalf of my one daughter and I am intervening and hovering. I continue to remind them both to add mental health supports in virtually whether that is Kids Help Phone, or a scheduled therapy call weekly.

Yesterday, I sat in on a Zoom call and I am now calling the bank for one youth, with their permission.

Last week, I was reminded by a youth job training program that my youngest should always answer and write her own emails. But guess what? She doesn’t. Someone still has to remind her. That’s how brain-based disorders and neurological impairments often work.

So, is this the year to let them fly and potentially crash? Not on my watch. Maybe you are finding yourself feeling like you're a helicopter parent for the first time ever. Well, many special needs parents have been here awhile. Welcome aboard.

Article Author Paula Schuck
Paula Schuck

Read more from Paula here.

My name is Paula Schuck and I have been writing professionally for over 20 years. I am a mother of two daughters, and I am a fierce advocate for several health issues. I am a yoga nut, skier and content coordinator for two London, Ontario, trade magazines. I have been published online and in traditional magazines and newspapers including: Today’s Parent, The Globe and Mail, Kitchener Record, London Free Press, trivago.ca, Ontario Parks blog and Food, Wine and Travel magazine.

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