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Helicopter vs. Hands-Off Parenting

April 10, 2019|Child & Adolescent

By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.


“I just want you to be happy”

As parents of teenagers and young adults know, parenting doesn’t end when your child is old enough to drive – it just becomes more nuanced. As you are dealing with more abstract issues, the outside world is increasingly a stronger influence.

As a resident advisor at a university and as a therapist for teenage and young adult patients, I have seen two extremes of parental messages about their futures. On the one hand, some parents attempt to impose their own values to the point of dictating which classes to take, which college to go to, or which jobs to apply to. This almost always comes from a well-meaning place of trying help their child have a good life.

However, these parents may disparage some of their child’s own ideas and may go so far as refusing a home or financial help if the child wants something different. The ensuing resentment and the damage to the parent-child relationship, as well as to growth and independence, is easy to see.  Not feeling accepted or trusted, or having to tamp down one’s natural interests and strengths, can foster feelings of anger, anxiety, and depression.

What is harder to see are the inadvertent pitfalls of more ostensibly supportive, hands-off parenting – when the message is, “It’s up to you, all I want is for you to be happy.” How many 16 or 22-year olds (or even adults) know what will make them happy or how to get there? What a tall order!

I have seen youngsters paralyzed by what they feel is an imperative to “be happy,” otherwise their parents won’t be, and as a result, feeling like failures if they are not. The children may also sense that despite assurances of unconditional support, there are unspoken expectations made more difficult to fulfill because they are unacknowledged.

The most emotionally healthy dynamic that I have seen between parents and youngsters is something in between these two extremes. Parents offer advice from their life experience, while recognizing that it is only theirs; that the environment and opportunities may be different now and that the youngster has different strengths, a different personality, and maybe even some different values.

Of the totally hands-off parent, I would ask that you remember that your job is partly but not fully over. Just as you kept your children safe, fed and clothed when they were young, you can now help them continue to grow into adulthood in less concrete ways. Instead of saying “I just want you to be happy,” or “I just want you to follow your dreams,” talk about what has given you and your friends satisfaction, what has been important in your life, and how you figured that out.

Ask your child in turn to think about what might be important to them. Financial luxury? A life of service? Working independently or as part of a group? Do they have preferences about where to live? Are they willing to go into debt or have a long apprenticeship? Do they want children? Do they have a passion that they don’t think they can make a living in? What have they enjoyed so far and been good at?

By having these conversations and explorations slowly over time, you will be setting the groundwork for choices that will hopefully lead to life satisfaction as well as independence for your child. You will get to know them better, not as little children anymore but as adult or almost-adult people who can still benefit from your guidance. By having thoughtful, low pressure conversations about the future, you are fostering your children’s self-awareness and coping skills, and are in fact likely to influence their choices for the better. And if not, you are at the very least creating a closer relationship that is in itself a positive.


Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist. Look for her monthly blog post about child & adolescent therapy on

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