I Love My Job, Except the Helicopter Parents

When it comes to applied behavior analysis, you would think the being down on the ground, the patience that is needed, the aggressive behaviors, the noncompliance, the long hours, the constant driving between clients, the bodily fluids we encounter on a daily basis would be the hardest parts of the job. In my experience, one of the absolute hardest parts has not been with the clients – it has been with their parents.

Encountering parents who – while having the best intentions – unintentionally interfere with behavior interventions can be really tough when you’re there for the exact opposite reason. We always strive for increased positive behaviors and decreased problem behaviors, right?! How about when your client is exhibiting attention seeking behavior and while you’re ignoring it, and parents give loving attention to it and ignore your calm direction to ignore as well?

When I see this happening while I’m working with a client, the term that comes to my mind is helicopter parenting. Parents.com defines this as parents who are over focused on their children. This can result in taking too much responsibility for their children’s experiences, successes, and failures. It can come across as overprotective, overcontrolling, and over-perfecting. There are four common triggers for helicopter parenting:

children holding carrots

1. Fear of dire consequences – If something can be avoided with parent involvement, and something not so ideal happens (i.e. a low grade on a test), it is likely to have stemmed from a fear of dire consequences. In the behavior world, I can picture if a child exhibited noncompliant behavior such as laying on the ground when told to go clean up what they were using. Then a parent comes over to get their child to complete the task by moving the child, coaxing, or doing the task for them. They believe their involvement would have avoided that situation all together.

2. Feelings of anxiety – Worrying about trying to keep your child from being hurt or disappointed. Again, I picture the same scenario and parents having anxiety about this behavior. I know full physical prompts or even guiding children can look odd to parents, that they may get an alert in their head that thy need to worry about their children getting hurt.

3. Overcompensation – Giving excessive attention to make up for feeling somewhat neglected themselves. This one can be sort of subjective, but I have seen families who have gone through some trauma, and through this trauma, people have come in and out of the lives of my client and the parents. Giving all the attention to their child can seem like the right idea because you need to make up for all that hurt and neglect that you feel.

4. Peer pressure from other parents – Feeling like a bad parent. I know when it comes to being a parent of a child on the spectrum, it can feel a little helpless, and with some blame sprinkled in there. You can see parents with children without a diagnosis and be envious or even feel badly because they don’t deal with the same struggles as you. It’s always easy to question what you’re doing, so when you see someone else doing something and seeing success, you may want to try it.

Fatherly.com talks about the effectiveness of helicopter parenting and how it can increase vulnerability, anxiety, depression in children and decrease the openness to new ideas. It can also result in decreased confidence and self-esteem, undeveloped coping skills, an increased sense of entitlement and undeveloped life skills. This can be because helicopter parenting can be led by fear and anxiety. Dr. Gilboa in Parents.com states that “it’s hard to keep in mind all the things kids learn when we are not right next to them or guiding each step. Failure and challenges teach kids new skills, and that they can handle failure and challenges.”

children playing

I personally have been in the ABA field for four years working as an RBT and am currently obtaining my Masters in Behavior Analysis. I have met many kids along the way, encountered many parents, and have not met one parent without the best intentions for their child. I have seen that parent training from a BCBA could be effective in helping parents learn more about ABA and how to interact with their children when it comes to handling their behavior to try and always increase success.

As an RBT, we also learn about replacement behaviors for our clients that can take place of problematic behavior. Dr. Todd Ward, a BCBA-D, wrote about replacement behaviors for helicopter parenting that while balances concerns for safety, also gives children room to learn from their own experiences.

1. Give your child responsibilities

2. Have your child accept failure

3. Empower your kids in different times.

Dr. Gilboa explains that “Remembering to look for opportunities to take one step back from solving our child’s problems will help us build the reliant, self-confident kids we need.” For kids with ASD, independence is always the goal. So, when they feel more confident and less hovered, this independence will hopefully thrive!


Bayless, Kate. “What Does Helicopter Parenting Mean?” Parents, www.parents.com/parenting/better-parenting/what-is-helicopter-parenting/.

Ward, Todd. A. “Replacement Behaviors to Helicopter Parenting.” Behavioral Science in the 21stCentury, 2016. www.bsci21.org/replacement-behaviors-to-helicopter-parenting/.

About the Author

Lauryn is an RBT in Denver, CO who loves to hike, go see live music, and work with her amazing clients. She will be graduating with her Masters in Education in the Foundations of Behavior Analysis from University of Cincinnati in December and hopes to pass her boards exam next year to become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst!

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