The insanity crept up on us slowly; we just wanted what was best for our kids. We bought macrobiotic cupcakes and hypoallergenic socks, hired tutors to correct a 5-year-old's "pencil-holding deficiency," hooked up broadband connections in the treehouse but took down the swing set after the second skinned knee. We hovered over every school, playground and practice field — "helicopter parents," teachers christened us ... ."
Click to read previous idealawg posts about helicopter parents.
But the hovering behavior does not only go down the family tree, it also flies up into the parent branches. Adult children are overprotecting their aging parents. I suppose we can call a person doing this up-the-tree overprotecting a "helicopter child."
The motivations for hovering over and around one's parent are many. Just four are mentioned in "Overprotective children do more harm than good" (Gainesville Sun): old-age myths, the widowed parent, reparenting your parents, and emotional baggage. A bit of elaboration on these four reasons adult children overprotect . . .
- One of our culture's old-age myths is that cognitive decline is inevitable. Children who believe this may infantilize their parents, not accurately assessing their parents' abilities and capacity for autonomy.
- When one parent dies, adult children may move in "too fast" in an effort to be supportive.
- Popular wisdom tells us that roles are reversed as parents age so that we as adult children become the parents. This reversal is not really accurate because the dynamics are different. Nevertheless, this misconception can lead children to attempt to parent their parents.
- Conflicts that developed in the past may influence how the child treats the aging parent, so that the child's behavior does not fit the situation or the needs of the parent.
Of course, there are many other reasons a child may hover. A few that come to mind right now: need to be needed, guilt, tendency to martyrdom, or lack of ability to listen to or read the parent.
The balance between autonomy and support is a delicate one in any relationship. In the case of aging parents, that balance can be particularly challenging. And there are ways to frame the challenge that can make it easier.
How do we maintain balance?
If one keeps in mind those two ways of interacting—providing support and respecting autonomy—doing so can increase the level of mindfulness about that balance.
Although the balancing can be complex with many factors to consider, and unique to each family, a simple diagnostic tool can be helpful on a day-to-day basis. As in many situations, a double axis chart may be of some quick and simple guidance. Deciding which of the four quadrants below (click on chart for larger version) is most appropriate for the situation can keep one focused on that balance between support and autonomy. Ideally those decisions can be made in a collaborative manner between parent and child, keeping in mind that the appropriate quadrant may shift over time and be different for each situation (e.g., healthcare, eating, transportation, finances, living space maintenance, recreation).
Obviously, the interactions of a parent and child in the quadrant of high autonomy and low support is going to be different from interactions in high support and low autonomy. The latter is where you may find helicopter children, if the support is excessive for the situation.
To avoid helicopter childing, communication is key. Click here and here to read two poignant stories of missing communication, two stories of what most children probably want to avoid. For guidance, take a look at How to Say It to Seniors: Closing the Communication Gap with Our Elders.
Even if navigating new waters, caring and respect are excellent lighthouses. Or, to use a metaphor more aligned with helicopters: even if flying in unfamiliar air spaces, caring and respect are excellent air traffic controllers.
Note (added April 22, 2013): As I write in a post on an aligned topic, the opposite extreme can be much worse: "Tomorrow you may become yesterday's child: Is preventing elder abuse a matter of cultural integrity?" (idealawg).