Joseph Cramer, M.D.: When to search and rescue 'helicopter moms'
Helicopters brought us vertical flight. Today they are indispensable for medical evacuations, particularly search and rescue.
Where they are not beneficial is hovering over every moment of our children’s lives.
Rescue of babies is made easier by their compact package. They are the right size at the right time of their development.
Toddlers are close to the ground on purpose. That way, while they are learning to walk, their fall is not too far. Size facilitates also getting up and starting over.
They will fall repeatedly, but if permitted to do so, they will not fail. The human spirit is built to explore. Discovery of our strengths and weaknesses is part of that quest. Learning from our childhood falls and recovery, we know when we trip we can get up again.
However, society has created “helicopter moms.” These wonderful worried women are on constant alert for maternal medevac and rescue. You can imagine how exhausted their arms must be from all the twirling.
These airborne mothers are fueled by an anxiety that is at full throttle. Anxiety appears to be more common these days. One reason is modern communication technology broadcasts disasters from all around the world. The earthquakes in China are as threatening as the killer bees from Brazil.
While technology has made the world smaller, it has also accumulated all crises into our homes. We see and hear about suffering children. Because it is essentially instantaneous information, our brains believe if it is now, it must be here. Therefore, the whole world is unsafe and our children are in danger.
In some, there is an innate increased state of awareness that facilitates parental levitation. Looking down on our offspring generates a natural fear for survival that has been around as long as humans. Otherwise early humans wouldn’t have been long for this world.
Another explanation for the growing air force is that many times parents overcompensate for the lack of perceived caring by their own mother or father. We all want the best for our children. In our effort to provide the comfort we missed, we can overshoot the mark. The other side is that helicoptering is what we experienced from our parents, and look at us. We are fine.
Lastly, there is a mistaken understanding of critical concepts of attachment. To build a secure, strong, healthy independent child, the crafters of attachment science write that it is important for the child to explore. A parental “secure base” is just that, a base from which to explore.
Animal models teach us much about ourselves — maybe that is another reason we should dine on them less. Examples of security come from non-human moms comforting their pups when stressed. These fellow mammals react to the cries of distress, not every squeak.
Parental responsiveness means to provide the right comfort at the right time and the right intensity for the right duration. Responsiveness demands we have to be present emotionally not just physically. Messages through feelings make us aware of the infantile hormonal cauldron. We soothe the chemical reactions that are bubbling over in our child. They then pick themselves up and keep going.
The right time is calculated into the complex equation of parenting. How long to wait before intervening is often a debate. A mother and a father can create stability. The right intensity and duration are also a balance that I can’t define on paper.
By practice and play we learn our children’s signals. Love is both close and far.
The goal is to comfort the stress, not the falls. Security has to be forged by testing strengths, weaknesses and fears. This is not permission to ignore in the name of toughness. It is first mined and crafted by parents.
Don’t crash the choppers. In this crazy world, we may all need emotional medevacs. Just know when to search and rescue, and when to land.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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