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The Problems With Helicopter Therapists

The cure for coddling is not more coddling.

Key points

  • People often live a prolonged childhood, not finding a vocation or pursuing the pitfalls of romance as adults.
  • Many contemporary therapists use a host of coddling techniques in response to suffering.
  • Like helicopter parents, a therapist may feel a patient's suffering reflects their ability as a professional.

Helicopter parents overly monitor their children, and they intervene to minimize the pain that comes to them (LeMoyne & Buchanan, 2011). They overly praise them, as well. For better or worse, psychological maturity means little more than the accumulation of failures, especially of the sort that behaviorists call extinction: frustrations with no payoff. A world without bumps and bruises would be one in which no child ever learns gymnastics, complex skills, rational argument, or social graces. Indeed, there are contemporary reports that young people today are living in a kind of prolonged childhood, not finding a place in the world vocationally, and not pursuing romance with all its pitfalls and potential humiliations. The result is increased anxiety and depression.

3 Inferences From Being "Helicoptered"

Intrapsychically, these particular forms of anxiety and depression can be explained by the helicopter metaphor. We treat ourselves as we’ve been treated, so a cosseted child learns to hover over themselves. The three main inferences from such hovering are the same inferences we would draw if a protective helicopter hovered over us in real life. One is that there is something wrong, some ill-defined danger that we need to concern ourselves about. This is one definition of anxiety: a fear of something that cannot be specified.

Another inference is that the world is an unsafe place, which is a key component of depression. It’s an orientation that makes experimentation and exploration seem like hopeless endeavors. Better to stay safely at home and draw the covers over one’s head.

The third inference drawn by those hovered over is that conflicts cannot be resolved except by authoritative intervention. At least in academia, I can testify that more than ever before, students unhappy with professors or other students are contacting the administration to put a stop to whatever is making them unhappy rather than talking things over and learning that not everyone has or should have the same opinion about things. Faculty are also quick to involve the authorities.

Therapists Who Coddle

In the same way that medical patients need to learn how to live with uncertainty, psychology patients need to learn to live with suffering, at least long enough to deal with its causes and not insist it give way to further cravings for bliss (or numbness). But some therapists are organized around protecting their patients from bad feelings, like helicopter parents. They are quick to provide drugs, cheerleading, and affirmations. “Something must be done!” seems to be the message, rather than creating a holding environment for a host of conflicting ideas and impulses. Some therapists are like parents who can't stand to give a child space to be disappointed in, and instead rush in with sweets or excuses. Good therapists, now as ever, are neutral and nonjudgmental (Gelso & Kanninen, 2017).

Underlying the hovering of both parents and therapists, there seems to be a sense that the suffering of the child or the patient reflects on the caregivers’ abilities or character. Psychology has contributed to this by blaming parents for children’s mental health and by introducing the evaluation of therapists on an hour-by-hour basis. This evaluation of therapists has become especially pernicious, with some organizations giving patients a questionnaire after every session. This practice fosters the idea that therapy should provide immediate relief rather than a treatment plan based on a case formulation. Patients are encouraged to act like children on a road trip: Are we there yet? I notice very few informed consent forms or oral discussions that include the main thing therapeutically informed consent should cover: This is going to hurt.

I got to watch my friends, Lisa and Matt, parenting their toddler recently. Maddie would cry when unhappy. Neither parent told her not to cry, and neither parent looked panicked by it. Instead, they would run through the list of possible causes and try to rectify them, or else they would explain that she just wasn’t going to get her way and engage her in something else. What struck me was that both parents interpreted the crying only as a sign of unhappiness, not as a sign that they were somehow failing as parents.

A society that expects children to always be happy is one that makes parents interpret children’s unhappiness as an accusation of incompetence. A profession that expects patients to feel better rather than to get better is one that makes therapists try to eliminate rather than understand suffering. Helicopter therapists don’t stop at coddling the patient during sessions; they also try to coddle beyond their reach by encouraging patients to rehearse the week’s frustrations and then cheerleading, as if the therapist knows best. Conflicts between patient and therapist, the grist for real therapy, are washed away in a shower of support.

Many physical therapists have to learn to make peace with causing their patients pain and discomfort in helping them to get better; some psychotherapists need to learn the same lesson.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


LeMoyne, T. & Buchanan, T. (2011). Does “hovering” matter? Helicopter parenting and its effect on well-being, Sociological Spectrum, 31:4, 399-418, DOI: 10.1080/02732173.2011.574038

Gelso, C. J., & Kanninen, K. M. (2017). Neutrality revisited: On the value of being neutral within an empathic atmosphere. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 27(3), 330–341.

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