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I'm a Parent And a Psychologist: This Parenting Style is the Opposite of Helicopter Parenting

By Emily Edlynn, PhD, Parents Magazine, September 14, 2023

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Nicole Amoyal Pensak

Overprotective parenting can be a burden—on both kids and parents. Autonomous-supportive parenting offers some psychologist-approved tricks to teach your children to be independent.

Medically reviewed by Nicole Amoyal Pensak, PhD

Intensive parenting seems to have become the most culturally accepted approach over the last couple decades. According to a recent survey of 3,600 parents, parents now view intensive parenting as the best kind of parenting. Unfortunately, what we have come to believe as “good” parenting is not so good for our kids. Or us.

As a form of controlling parenting (known to be harmful for kids), intensive parenting curates a child’s environment while shielding them from hardship. This type of control extends to wanting to shape our children’s identities, such as top student or star athlete, to ensure they are successful in life. As a result of this parenting approach, children end up struggling with living their lives independently and with a strong sense of self and what matters to them—rather than what matters to their parents.

As I have personally seen in my therapy practice and community, backed up by books like Michele Borba’s Thrivers and Jennifer Wallace’s Never Enough, too many of today’s kids and teens do not feel a sense of agency over their choices, are burned out, and feel like their self-worth depends on straight As and winning trophies. Not to mention that intensive parenting requires a significant amount of time and energy from parents who are already reporting high levels of burnout.

There is a healthier way. Opposite of intensive parenting, autonomy-supportive parenting promotes independence and resilience in children. In my book, Autonomy-Supportive Parenting: Reduce Parental Burnout and Raise Competent, Confident Children, I share what more than thirty years of studies comparing autonomy-supportive and controlling parenting have proven: Parents and children are better off if we can abandon intensive parenting in favor of autonomy-supportive parenting.

What Is Autonomy-Supportive Parenting?

Autonomy-supportive parenting comes from evidence that each of us has three fundamental human needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy means feeling agency and the freedom to explore our values and who we are, while also recognizing our responsibility to respect others. Competence refers to confidence in our skills and abilities. Relatedness captures the sense of connection and belonging in relationships and community. When these three needs are met, people are happier and healthier.

By practicing autonomy-supportive parenting, we nurture these basic human needs in our children. The research shows a strong association between autonomy-supportive parenting and a laundry list of positive outcomes for kids, from toddlers to teens, such as higher self-esteem, greater psychological health, and stronger emotional, social, and academic skills.

How to Encourage Autonomy in Kids

How does it work? This parenting framework includes a set of strategies including expecting independent behaviors, expressing trust in a child’s ability to do and handle hard things, involving the child in problem-solving and decision-making, and showing understanding and respect for a child’s developing identity through curiosity about their experience and taking their perspective.

In my book, I offer specific steps and scripts for real-life parenting challenges across ages. Here’s are some sample strategies for different ages and stages:

School Age: Ages 7-12

  • Ask questions to understand your child’s perspective. For example, before giving a speech on the dangers of social media, ask them what they know about how social media can be risky.

  • Involve them in decision-making. What do they think is the best homework routine? How many activities do they want in their schedule?

  • Expect independence. When they come to you to solve a problem for them, don’t fix or rescue. Encourage them that they can figure out the problem or handle an uncomfortable situation, like being in the middle of a friend fight or not being in the same class as their bestie.

Adolescence: Ages 10-17

  • Show curiosity instead of judgment. When your teen makes a poor choice, approach them with openness to understanding how they made that choice rather than lecturing them.

  • Use empathy. Teens really want to feel understood. When you are more curious, it’s easier to understand their experience and then express empathy for what they are struggling with: “So you ghosted your friend because you felt nervous about having a tough conversation.” This makes it more likely they will keep sharing struggles with you.

  • Express trust. Let your teen know you trust them to solve their problems and manage challenges. You are available for support and guidance, but they don’t need you to do it for them.

Teach Kids to Be Independent

Autonomy-supportive parenting gives parents a reason to quit intensive parenting and a roadmap for how. When we can shift gears from over-protective to autonomy-supportive parenting, we better prepare our children to be confident, resilient, and independent.

Just as important, when we can let go of control, we make space for more of our own autonomy, making ourselves happier and healthier too.

Emily Edlynn is a clinical psychologist who works in private practice with children, teens and families. She is the author of Autonomy-Supportive Parenting: Reduce Parental Burnout and Raise Competent, Confident Children.

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