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S2 EP129 – Enmeshed, Controlling, Helicopter Parenting

Episode Summary

Are you an enmeshed, controlling, or helicopter parent? Do you have challenges setting appropriate limits and consequences for your children? Many parents try to be far better parents than their parents were, yet their children grow up feeling lost and empty. Discover what to do and what not to do to raise responsible children. 


Hi everyone. Dr. Margaret Paul here with the Inner Bonding podcast. Today I’m speaking to the issue of enmeshed, controlling, and helicopter parenting.

Are you obsessed with your children’s happiness?

Many parents focus much of their energy on being there for their children, but their children often end up feeling lost and empty, and there is a good reason for this.

One of the issues I often talk about with parents is that half of good parenting is being there for your children, and the other half is being there for yourself and becoming a loving role model of personal responsibility for filling your own emptiness. Parents who are obsessed with their kids’ happiness, are likely addicted to filling themselves up through their children – not a healthy situation.

Dr. Erika Chopich, the co-creator of Inner Bonding, often runs into problems with many of the adolescents who work in our barn, so I asked her to speak on this topic, and this what she said:

“We’ve had a lot of young people as members of our barn team, and it is obvious how they have been parented, because their parenting has such a big influence on their work ethic. The young people who have hovering helicopter parents have no work ethic at all. They tend to be more entitled and less responsible because mommy and daddy aren’t there to tell them every little thing to do. It often looks as though they are not able to think for themselves.

“As a pilot, I’m aware that a helicopter cannot glide. If the engine fails in a helicopter, all that’s left is what energy is left in the rotor and it auto rotates to the ground straight down. A glider, however, or even a powered aircraft, has a glide where you have time to pick a landing spot and get down safely. The same is true in parenting. if you helicopter a child, they seem to often end up crashing and burning rather than gliding through life and learning how to take on challenges and disappointments. I always refused to try and fly a helicopter because I considered them so dangerous without the concept of the ability to glide away from danger.

“The young ones in our barn tend to just mark time waiting for a paycheck rather than know how to be engaged, enthusiastic, self-motivated, or honest. They are so entitled and confused about their own ethics that nothing seems to reach them, and if they are confronted or they have a challenge in front of them, you can count on them to back away. They can’t glide from problem to problem and they’re fearful, like fearful of getting their driver’s license and driving. They cannot soar.

“I think helicopter parenting came into being when young parents decided it was important to be their child’s best friend. The responsibility of good parenting means being a good leader, providing good role modeling, setting proper limits, and coaching your child through every disappointment and every challenge without fixing it for them. I see too many parents fixing their children’s challenge. They run into the barn to talk to me because little Bobby or Susie isn’t happy in their work. So the parents charge in to convince me to make their adolescent happy.

“On the parent side of it I frequently notice that the parents have a need to use their children for as a source of approval and fulfillment. If the child succeeds, it means that they’re good parents. They need approval for their parenting rather than focusing their energy on the development of the child. The parents are often scared and needy and use the child as a way to fulfill themselves. Some go to extremes. They’re not just helicopters – they become bulldozers clearing every obstacle imaginable out of the way of their child so that the child, or the young person never learns to confront adversity, never learns to charge towards the challenge. They will generally back away and feel defeated. They will feel less than, just as the parent does.

“When we were growing up, we couldn’t wait to drive, but many of these adolescents with hover parents don’t want to drive. They don’t want the responsibility, and they’re scared. Can you imagine not wanting to rush to your freedom at 16? With us it was “Oh boy, I can drive and go where I want!” But many of them don’t want any part of it. They don’t want to take the test. They don’t want to learn. They don’t want to take drivers Ed. They just want somebody to drive them around so that they have no responsibility and no challenges.

“Frequently in the barn we have group discussions about facing fears, about why you run towards the fear, why you feel the fear and do it anyway or you simply cannot grow. We’ve even had young people in our barn who were so horribly helicoptered that they couldn’t at the age of 18 go to a doctor or a dentist by themselves. They had to have their mom with them to hold their hand. This is somebody who’s already emotionally crippled before they even reach adulthood. Any life challenge and they become clueless as to how to meet and confront and be successful in the face of challenges. We will have challenges and disappointments our whole lives and the helicopter parents almost ensure that their offspring won’t know how to manage life.

“We’ve seen so many of our barn team graduate and start off for college but find even college too overwhelming. They don’t know how to meet the challenges academically they don’t know how to survive on their own without somebody cooking for them, doing the laundry getting them where they need to be on time, and organizing themselves. They simply cannot function and inevitably just drop out, feeling lost.”

I hadn’t known until Erika told me that when helicopters crash, they burn. They don’t glide.

Inner Bonding is all about learning how to take responsibility for your own feelings. The problem with these lost young adults is that their parents always took responsibility for them, rather than role-modeling how to fill themselves up and take responsibility for their feelings.

Feeling lost and empty is the result of a lack of love. These kids received an abundance of attention from their parents, but they never learned how to fill themselves with love through a personal source of spiritual guidance. They never learned how to access their own higher self to guide them in what is loving to themselves, so they end up feeling lost.

I was just like these parents for many of the years that my children were growing up. Because my parents were never emotionally there for me with love, understanding, compassion and caring, I vowed to give that to my children. And I did. The problem was that I was not giving it to myself, so I was not teaching my children to give it to themselves. Instead, I was teaching them that someone else was responsible for making them happy.

Fortunately, Erika and I created Inner Bonding while my children were adolescents, so they got some of the role-modeling before leaving home. It was not an easy transition for me or for them, to go from caretaking them – taking responsibility for their feelings – to taking responsibility for my feelings. But it was well worth it.

Are you at least as focused on being there for your own feelings as you are on being there for your children’s feelings? If not, are you willing to learn how to take responsibility for your feelings so that your children learn how to take responsibility for theirs? Truly, this is one of the best gifts you can give to your children.

Far too many of the people I work with tell me they had great parents and felt loved and supported by their parents, and they wonder why they feel so lost.

The first thing I ask them is, “How did your parents treat themselves?” The response might be something like, “My mother put herself aside for my father, taking care of his every need. My father worked hard and came home and watched TV all evening. My father was lost without my mother and died six months after my mother died of breast cancer,” or “My mother was addicted to food and my father was addicted to beer.”

“Did you ever see either of them taking responsibility for their own feelings?” I ask.

“No,” they answer.

This is the issue. If you don’t want your children to grow up feeling lost, empty, turning to addictions, and having relationship problems, then do your own inner work and become a role model of personal responsibility for your own pain and joy.

I love this quote by Kahlil Gibran:

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They came through you but not from you and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

Here are some symptoms of enmeshed, hovering, helicopter parenting:

  • Your children’s good or difficult behavior and successful or unsuccessful achievements define your worth.
  • Your children are the center of your life – your purpose in life.
  • Your focus is on taking care of your children rather than also taking care of yourself.
  • Your happiness or pain is determined by your children.
  • You are invasive – you need to know everything about what your children think and do.

If you identify with one or more of these symptoms, you might be enmeshed with your children, hovering over them, and making them responsible for your happiness.

Other than feeling lost in life, there are numerous other consequences for your children of this kind of parenting, such as:

  • They may grow up feeling responsible for others’ feelings while ignoring responsibility for their own. They might feel selfish if they take care of themselves rather than take care of you, and they might become compliant and disconnected from themselves.
  • They may use you as their role model – making others responsible for their feelings, rather than being self-responsible.
  • They may feel invaded and controlled by you and withdraw, resist, or act out in anger. As adults, they may have a hard time taking responsibility for themselves.
  • They will likely have problems in their adult relationships, both work and personal – being a taker, a caretaker, withdrawn, angry and/or resistant.
  • And, as I’ve already said, they might feel lost and empty inside because of not learning how to take responsibility for their own feelings.

As a parent, it is vitally important that you have a sense of passion and purpose in your life, separate from your children. And it is vitally important that you learn to define your own sense of worth, rather than making your children’s behavior responsible for this. It is way too big a burden for children to be the center of your life. There is way too much pressure on them to act right, perform right and look right, so you feel that you are okay. Defining your worth through your children makes them feel trapped in being what you want them to be, rather than being themselves. If you do not have work, hobbies or other interests that are important to you, then you might be making your children your purpose in life, and you might be making them responsible for your feelings of happiness and self-worth.

Your children need you to be a role model of taking loving care of yourself – of defining your own worth and taking responsibility for your own feelings of pain and joy. They need to see you as a productive member of society – whether it is through your work, volunteer work, or creative activities and hobbies. They need to feel free to be themselves and follow their own path, without feeling that they will hurt or disappoint you. They need to know that they can come to you with their fears, questions, doubts, and dilemmas, and that you will be there to help them find their way, rather than imposing your way on them. They need to feel your love and support for who they are, rather than who you think they should be.

You will end up with a far better relationship with your children if you learn how to make yourself happy and define your own worth, rather than make your children responsible for you. As adults, they will continue to want to spend time with you if you are your own person, but if they feel obligated to be with you, they might resist.

If you are a helicopter, enmeshed parent, do yourself and your children a huge favor and start learning to take responsibility for your own happiness and pain through your own Inner Bonding practice.

One of the big challenges of parenting is knowing when to set limits on a child’s behavior and what limits to set. This challenge becomes much easier when you look at limit setting in terms of your intent.

Children, like the rest of us, do not like to be controlled. You probably can manage to find ways to control younger children, but at what cost? One likely consequence is that, while your child may comply in one area, he or she will likely become resistant in other areas. Another consequence is that your child is learning from you how to be controlling, and may use your controlling tactics – yelling, blaming, hitting, threatening, guilting – on younger siblings or other children. You are the role model. Do you really want to be teaching these behaviors to your children?

What if your intention were to take loving care of yourself and your children, rather than control your children?

For example Sara, who is 12 years old, had been mouthing off to her teacher at school. Her mother, Isabel, kept getting warnings from the school. But the warnings were not working.

Isabel opened to learning with Sara to see if she could discover an underlying issue, but all Sara said was that it was fun and funny, and she kept being rude to her teacher. Isabel, upset and drained, decided to take loving care of herself by setting a loving limit. She knew that Sara was saving up for a new bike and didn’t want to have to part with the money she got for Christmas and her birthday. Isabel knew where this money was being kept and she had access to it – which Sara knew.

“Sara,” said Isabel, “I’m really tired and upset about your rudeness to your teacher. I will start charging you for your rudeness. The next time you receive a warning, you will be charged $20 dollars.”

Sara screamed and yelled about this and finally calmed down. Two days later Sara mouthed off again to her teacher.

“$20 please,” said Isabel.

“But mom, I’m saving for a bike!”

“I know. $20 please. And next time, it will be $25 and the time after that it will be $30, and each time it will go up $5.”

Sara handed Isabel a $20 bill and stopped mouthing off.

Isabel had taken care of herself and her daughter by setting a loving limit that not only gave her an alternative to staying upset, but also gave Sara an appropriate consequence for her choice to be rude, which ultimately resulted in her making a new choice.

Seven-year old Dylan was in a power struggle with his father, David, about brushing his teeth at night. The next time Dylan went to the dentist, he had a cavity due to not brushing. By that night, David had decided what to do.

“Dylan, I’m tired of trying to get you to brush your teeth every night. It’s not fun and I’m drained by it. So from now on, I will remind you once, and if you get cavities as a result of not brushing your teeth, you will have to pay the cost of the fillings with your birthday and Hanukah money.”

The next time Dylan got a cavity, he had to pay the bill. It took half the money he had saved. After that, Dylan didn’t even have to be reminded to brush his teeth. The power struggle was over.

Discovering a loving limit is a creative process. It takes thought to come up with a consequence for your child that matters to him or her and that you have a way of enforcing. When your intent is to be kind and take loving care of both yourself and your child, rather than hover over your child and try to control him or her, you can go to your higher guidance for help in coming up with consequences that make you feel relieved. You can also discuss it with friends, engaging others in the creative process. When your intent is to find the appropriate consequence, you will find it.

As parents, we want our children to grow up knowing how to take responsibility for themselves, so it’s important to understand how they learn this. Children absorb what they see way more than what you make them do, so, as I’ve said, they become personally responsible when you are role modeling taking personal responsibility for your own feelings and needs.

Here is an example about bedtime. In many households with young children, bedtime is a nightmare for the parents. Typically, a parent nags about getting ready for bed and the children resist – dawdling and ignoring the parent. The parent is tired and wants some time for themselves, so the conflict often escalates until the parent is yelling before the children finally capitulate. It’s not much fun.

When my own children were young, we set a firm limit regarding when we would be available to tuck them in, spend some loving and cozy time with them, read to them, and so on. We said, “We will be available to put you to bed at 8:30 (or whatever time was appropriate for each child). If you are not ready at that time, you will need to put yourself to bed. You can stay up as late as you want, but you can’t disturb us, each other, or watch TV.” We taught them how to read a digital clock by the time they were three so that they knew what time it was.

The result with our children was that each of them tested this out a couple of times and stayed up very late. Finding themselves bleary-eyed the next day, they discovered that they needed their sleep to feel well. They also discovered that they looked forward to the cozy time with us before going to sleep and didn’t like the loneliness of putting themselves to bed. Therefore, they got themselves ready for bed and would come to get us to tuck them in. I’ll never forget the time my three-year old daughter came into the living room where we were spending time with friends and said in her little indignant voice, “Mommy, it’s time to put me to bed.” Our friends were stunned that this tiny child was ready for bed without a fuss, and even asked to be put to bed!

Another chaotic time in many households with young children is getting up and ready for school. Again, the parents nag and yell as the children dawdle – not getting dressed, not eating their breakfast. Parents are often exhausted by the time their children finally leave for school.

Once again, it is important to make this their responsibility, rather than yours. If you teach your children how to set their alarm, then they can be responsible for getting themselves up on time.

If your children are in a carpool or if you take them to school, let them know that when it’s time to leave, they will have to get into the car in whatever state of dress or undress they are in, and whether or not they have had breakfast. If they are still in their pajamas, hand them their clothes and they can put them on at school. If this happens one time with one of your children, it will likely never happen again. They will know you mean what you say and will be ready on time. If they walk to school, let them know that their lateness is their responsibility and that you will not give them notes to excuse their tardiness. They will have to take responsibility for the consequences of their choice to be late.

When you are clear regarding your own limits about what you will and will not do, and you stay solid in your limits, not allowing whining or crying and tantrums to sway you, children will learn to respect your limits and take responsibility for themselves. 

It is best to start this early so that by the time they are adolescents, they have a good foundation for making responsible decisions.

When your children are young, it might seem like you can control them to a certain extent with yelling, punishments, and threats, but once they reach adolescence and are likely bigger than you, the dynamic changes. So rather than trying to control your children – which is unloving to you and to them and is poor role modeling – your energy is far better spent by setting a good example and controlling what you can control, which is you and your own limits.

Setting realistic limits and setting a good example for responsible behavior prevents the power struggles and resistance that plague so many family interactions. Parenting should be fun rather than a burden, and it can be, when you decide to take care of yourself and lovingly allow your children to experience the consequences of their own decisions. The exception is issues of health and safety; that is, it’s obviously NOT loving to allow a child to suffer the possible consequences of running in the street. In situations like this, firmness is called for. Children are far more responsive to the firm limits imposed around issues of health and safety when “No” is not such a common word.

The bottom line is that you avoid the negative consequence of controlling, enmeshed, and helicopter parenting when you learn to become a loving role-model of personal responsibility for yourself in all areas of your life, which you can learn to do through your Inner Bonding process.

I hope you join me for my 30-Day at-home Course: “Love Yourself: An Inner Bonding Experience to Heal Anxiety, Depression, Shame, Addictions and Relationships.”

You can learn so much about loving yourself and creating loving relationships from my recent books:

Diet for Divine Connection: Beyond Junk Foods and Junk Thoughts to At-Will Spiritual Connection

The Inner Bonding Workbook: Six Steps to Healing Yourself and Connecting With Your Divine Guidance

6 Steps to Total Self-Healing: The Inner Bonding Process

And my newly released book, How to Become Strong Enough to Love: Creating Loving Relationships Through the Six-Step Pathway of Inner Bonding

And we have much to offer you at our website at

I’m sending you my love and my blessings.

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