Category Archives: Helicopter parents

Welcome to Heartbreak

As the summer dwindles down, it’s time for a new season to begin.  For many parents, this signifies a new transition in their lives, which has unexpected emotional baggage.

Many parents are now encountering for the first OR tenth time, the pain of letting their child go – be it college, boarding school or even the tentative first steps of nursery school or kindergarten.  Surprising that the pain of letting go doesn’t seem to diminish as your child grows.  It’s always a surprise.

All of these are yet more ‘firsts’ in the parenting journey – the surprising pain of letting your child go off into unchartered waters for the first time.  Some parents have described the pain akin to childbirth pain, ripping them up emotionally as their children depart.

The truth is, parenting is a series of “letting go” experiences, each with an equal tug of pain as childbirth.  Indeed, to be a parent is to learn to —

nurture and then let go,

nurture and then let go,

nurture and then let go,

—in a series of waves that continue on for a long long time down the road to growing up until they gradually recede.

Surprise! The pain of the moment is almost too much to bear.  Surprise! There is almost no one you can share it with.   You feel as if you want to announce to the world with tears, “Leo started ________________ today. “  fill in the blank: nursery, first grade, middle school, high school, first day at college.  You will likely receive a high five or congratulations from your peers, seeing it as a transition for you into liberation.  Oh but what about your aching heart?

For the majority of parents, these transitions can be both gut wrenching and invisible to the outside world as to just how painful this is.

How to cope?

First, know this:

Your paternal or maternal broken heart is utterly normal; this is yet another wave of child rearing.  Indeed, to be a parent is to have your heart broken over and over again – and it’s normal and healthy!  Sometimes, people reduce your despair as “empty nest” syndrome, a term that doesn’t even begin to cover what you’re going through!

Let’s look at your parent brain to understand the transition.  For many years, your parent brain has looked like this:

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As your child grows, your parent brain must slowly fill with other matters, or else each transition leaves literally an empty space in your brain/ heart space.

Here are some tips:

FIRST MORNING:  make sure you plan a comfort filler for your morning.  Know that your heart space needs some comfort today. TAKE THE TIME TO LET YOURSELF BE SAD AND THEN CELEBRATE. Breathe deeply. Practice letting go. Just like Lamaze but this time the contractions are in your heart. Meditation is a strong medium to acknowledge this journey and gain more equanimity.

BEYOND:  know that  it’s temporary in  a way.  For most parents, as soon as they see that their child has cheerfully adjusted, a lot of the pain becomes soothed.

HERE ARE SOME TIPS TO SURVIVE AND THRIVE:

  1. Accept the timing:  it’s time to let your little one (or big one) fly.  Be sure to let them know you are confident that they can do it! or – share your worries with them, just not the actual morning of the separation.  Worries should be discussed well ahead of the actual event.  if you are unsure of how to raise these worries, seeking professional help of a supportive therapist, even for one session, can go a long way.
  2. Create social support:   Social support can be incredibly helpful during times of stress and loneliness, and self-care should be made a priority during difficult transitions. There are practical things you can do to prepare for or manage the transition of children leaving the home. For example, time and energy that you directed toward your child can now be spent on different areas of your life. This might be an opportune time to explore or return to hobbies, leisure activities, or career pursuits.

  1. Adjust to your new role! This also marks a time to adjust to your new role in your child’s life as well as changes in your identity as a parent. Your relationship with your child may become more peer-like, and while you may have to give your child more privacy, you can have more privacy for yourself as well.

  2. Plan ahead! It’s a good idea to prepare for this transition while your children are still completely dependent on you, or before they leave home (depending on the age of the upcoming separation).

  3. Develop yourself: friendships, hobbies, career, and educational opportunities. Make plans with the family while everyone is still under the same roof, such as family vacations, long talks, and taking time off from work to make special memories.

  4. Special memoriestime to make special memories as a parting gift! Be sure to stick something special in their pocket, be it a felt heart with a magic message, or an extra gift card, something that says “I love you”.

5.  Long term: This low mood should go away as the activities of your newfound hours increase.  If not, please, please get some professional help.  Your child wants you to be happy too!!

With a little planning and a little self care, you too will survive this part of the PARENTING JOURNEY process!

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Umbrella Parents, Part 2: How Much Is Too Much?

Sometimes you have to retract the umbrella to find out what your kids are capable of.
Sometimes you have to retract the umbrella to find out what your kids are capable of.

Last post, I defined “umbrella parents” as parents who have to do what it takes to get their child’s needs served, even if it means looking like a ‘smother mother’ to other parents. I have always advocated parents being fully in the ring with their kids—and urge them to do whatever it takes to get their child’s needs met at school, camp, sports teams and elsewhere.

In that post, I also talked about executive function development and how it is often delayed in atypical children. This makes it essential for good parents to pave the way for their kids. Teachers, coaches, counselors and well-meaning parents of other children can be unintentionally cruel unless they are instructed otherwise. Your child clearly needs strong parental support as he or she is growing up.

But when does protecting your child become a habit rather than a necessity?

Or, as the exhausted mother of a teen put it, “Just exactly until when do we have to keep doing all of this?”

What Are Habituated Parents?

Umbrella parenting takes a lot of energy, planning and anticipating daily twists and turns of life. But eventually, it’s time to let go…. slowly. Sometimes this doesn’t happen fully until young adulthood, but it’s never too early to try to release the reins and see what happens, if only for a moment. Otherwise, parents risk becoming habituated to their children’s dependency and forget that the goal of umbrella parenting is to ultimately let go.

Here is an example of what I mean by a habituated parent:

Herbert is 11 years old. He’s so anxious about coming to me for testing that he is lying on the floor of the waiting room at his mother’s feet. She apologizes for him but does not make him sit up. He is, you see, anxious.

Herbert sullenly shuffles into my office and slumps into the chair. Mom checks that he has his backpack and enough snacks, and then tells him she loves him twice before leaving.

Who is the anxious one here?

Herbert slumps passively through his days while Mom takes care of all his needs. He is not developing the skills he needs to navigate the world independently or advocate for himself. Mom is too afraid for him to teach him what he needs to know. She has forgotten to retract the umbrella once in a while to help him learn to fend for himself.

Retracting the Umbrella

Instead of worrying yourself ragged like Herbert’s mom, try stepping back now and then, just a little.

You may start to notice that your child is capable of much more than you thought he could do. This change may come in stages, or progress at a more rapid pace. Take your cue from how things go in school. I find that many parents have no idea how independent or resourceful their child can be at school (or how polite and interactive), because he regresses as soon as he gets home.

Your child may be aware that she has a problem but is unable to act on the coping strategies she is learning right away. Once she matures that extra little bit, things suddenly click.

You may be surprised at how much your child can manage on his own, when you start to retract that umbrella bit by bit.  If you have been a vigilant umbrella parent for a while and are wondering if it’s time to step back,  take that baby step to see how it goes. Remember: even a small step can be a major accomplishment for your child. Give it a try and  be sure to share with us and with  other “positively atypical” parents and friends about your experience.

Next Post: Key teachable moments for every child.

When Is “Too Much” Just Enough?

Umbrella Parents
Umbrella parents always know when the rain is coming, and are ready with a metaphorical umbrella.

You know the ones.  The moms or dads with chronically worried faces, who pre-empt every group parent meeting to talk about their child’s special needs, and seem oblivious to the eye-rolling of parents around them.  The ones who wait outside the classroom at the end of each day to make sure their child is bringing home the right books. The parents who take the longest in the parent-teacher conferences.  “Helicopter parents.”   “Smother mothers.”

You know them because they are us and they are you. Parents of atypical kids do stand out from the rest; they take care of their children in ways that other moms and dads don’t have to, risking criticism from other parents and weary sighs from teachers.  They look like they are helicopter parents, but here is the truth that only you know:

They are doing what it takes to get their kid through the day.  Sometimes “too much” is just enough.

Hello, Umbrella Parents!

Instead of helicopter parents or smother mothers, I like to refer to these devoted moms and dads as umbrella parents. Good parents know what their children need, anticipate those needs, and take action. They are like weathermen who know when the rain is coming and are ready with a metaphorical umbrella.

When a child is diagnosed as atypical, I always explain to parents that they will need to be more attuned to the child’s needs than the average parent, at least for a while. Helicopter instincts are a very practical response to dealing with your special needs child.

Why? Because most atypical children experience some impairment and delay of their executive function.  Executive function is a broad term for the process that takes place in frontal lobe of the brain: the ability to anticipate, plan, problem-solve, organize, and self-monitor one’s social behaviors.  That pretty much sums up the job description of a parent, doesn’t it?

Umbrella parents don’t hesitate to protect their kids

When parents know that their children will have problems in particular areas, not only is it important to intercede, pave the way for them, and inform those adults who teach them, it is critical.  Teachers and coaches are busy running programs with lots of kids, and the problems of a single child just don’t stand out—until they do.

At that point, how the coach or teacher treats the child can lead to a series of humiliations, unfortunate discipline tactics, and subsequent self-esteem problems for the child. Coaches, counselors, and some teachers can be too aggressive in their tactics unless they are informed and instructed about better methods to deal with a child who is different.

So parents, do not hesitate to be your child’s advocate! Stand up, call it out, pay no attention to the other parents who think you are helicoptering. You are protecting your child!

The 5 W’s of  Umbrella Parenting

When your child is beginning a new class, team, or other activity, you have the chance to set the stage for a positive experience for your child and a good relationship with the teacher or coach. It is your chance to replace the “helicopter” label with “attentive and available.”  Just remember the 5 W’s:

  • Who? Who should be in the meeting? When you ask to meet with the teacher, coach or activity leader, it’s best if you bring along backup. The more people to support you, the better.  A spouse, neighbor or even your child’s therapist.  There is strength in numbers; moms rarely get heard as well as a professional who is saying the same thing.
  • What? What should the parent bring to the meeting? A note from a doctor or a one page recommendation list could help the process.  For example, a note could say: “Andy suffers from an auditory processing disorder. This means that he may not hear your instructions the first time. Please do not yell at him for this, but do repeat it a few times if he seems confused.  You could also meet with him before the game to see if he has any questions.”You could also attach a brief printout about the disorder for him to read. Note that what the doctor is saying is exactly what you will say, but somehow the doctor or therapist note provides more weight to your requests.
  • When? When should the meeting take place? The earlier the better. I often advise parents to meet with teachers a few days before school starts to debrief them on your child’s needs.  Depending on how many adjustments your child needs, you may want 15 minutes up to a half hour.Ask the teacher for “15 minutes of your time” just to briefly explain the situation and why you, the parent, will be hovering a bit throughout the year.
  • Where? Location matters. You will want privacy, away from other parents.  You also may not want to involve your child if he or she is not ready to talk about his issues (stay tuned for a future blog post on this)
  • Why? The point of this first little meeting is to set the stage with the teacher, explain what the situation is, and communicate that you are a calm, attentive parent and want to help the teacher so that your child is not disruptive and also is getting what he or she needs.

Stay tuned for my next post, when I will talk about the flip side of umbrella parenting: over-indulging your kid, soothing your own nerves instead of his, and when and how to let go.