Resisting the Urge to Helicopter


Help for helicoptering

Help for helicoptering

Episode #146 – Resisting the Urge to Helicopter

Question of the Day:

Hi Torie,

What do I do when my high schooler won’t ask for help at school and his grades are suffering? 

My 10th grader has missed a lot of school this year due to various illnesses, most recently missing 7 days due to having Covid. His grades in several classes have plummeted.

I’m sympathetic to his situation – it’s not his fault that he has missed so much school, and getting behind in a bunch of classes and getting low grades feels awful. But the fact remains – he IS behind and he needs to work with his teachers in order to get caught up.

I’ve talked to him many times about what he needs to do to catch up. I’ve asked him where he needs help or additional instruction, but he just shrugs. I’ve advised him to talk to his teachers and ask them for help. I’ve floated the idea of talking to his teachers myself and he’s been clear that he doesn’t want me to get involved. And while I want to respect his wishes as well as letting him have the experience of figuring all of this out… I can’t help but wonder if he’s in over his head and needs an adult to step in and coordinate Project Catch-up. Until this year, the academic aspects of school have been quite easy for him, so these struggles are new for us both. I appreciate your input.



Help for helicoptering


I love how you signed it “resisting the urge to helicopter”. It sounds like your anxiety about his grades is pretty loud in your head but your instincts are saying “something about this feels like overstepping”.  Instead of indulging your anxiety and ‘helicoptering’, you are resisting that action until all parts of you are in agreement. A great reminder that fear is LOUD, instincts are QUIET, and INTEGRITY is that feeling of being whole and aligned with your values.

Help for helicoptering

Help for helicoptering

Help for helicoptering

Parent Educator Answer:  What conventional wisdom and advice can I offer?

You’ve already done a lot:

“I’ve talked to him many times about what he needs to do to catch up.”

“I’ve asked him where he needs help or additional instruction, but he just shrugs.” 

“I’ve advised him to talk to his teachers and ask them for help.”


Normally I would suggest the problem solving technique where you write the problem at the top of the page. “Low grades due to absences” and then brainstorm solutions, taking turns so you each are writing down different ways to handle it. Come up with many possible solutions, then take turns crossing out the ones you don’t like, leaving one to two compromise solutions at the end that you both agree to. 


I’m not suggesting this technique here because of what you wrote here: “he’s been clear that he doesn’t want me to get involved.” 


The only advice I can recommend that you haven’t already done is to make sure he understands the consequences of his actions so that he knows what he is choosing.  


What are the natural consequences of a D or F ?

Would he go to summer school? Will he be preventing himself from getting into an AP class next year? Will it change which colleges he applies to or prevent him from graduating high school? 


Once he understands the consequences, he can decide if he’s ok with that. Maybe he’d rather get his GED and be done with school? Maybe he was planning to go to junior college first anyway and he doesn’t want to stress about it? Maybe he’s figured that he’s a sophomore and it’s the junior year grades that count the most so he’s not worrying about it? 


Helping him understand what the natural consequences are, can help him make an educated decision and choose his preferred course of action. 


Is it possible that your brain was so focused on PREVENTING him from getting low grades, that you aren’t even sure what the actual next steps would be? Summer school is a way more boring thing for the brain to think about than the catastrophizing scenario your anxiety brain can create. 


Let’s take a look at what’s blocking you from allowing your son to steer the ship of his own life.

Help for helicoptering

Help for helicoptering

Life Coaching Answer: Separate the facts from our thoughts about them. 


Fact – My 10th grader has missed a lot of school this year due to various illnesses.

Fact – His grades in several classes have plummeted.

Fact – He is behind

Not a fact –  “He needs to work with his teachers in order to get caught up.” 


This is your belief that is causing you to lock in on one solution to his problem. When he resists the one solution, you feel stuck because you THINK it’s a fact. (You literally said, “the fact remains…) 


Fact – You’ve expressed your opinion about what you believe to be the most effective way to get his grades up. 

Fact – You’ve offered him help. 

Fact – He doesn’t want you to get involved. 


Thought – “He’s in over his head and NEEDS an adult to step in and coordinate Project Catch Up.”  


Look at how compelling this sentence is to a loving mom who wants the best for her son: 


“He NEEDS me! I can coordinate Project Catch Up! That sounds easy and fun and I know just what to do to fix his problem! Look at me putting on my Supermom Cape and sweeping in to solve my sick, helpless boy’s problem. What a good mom I am rescuing my son from failure!”


I love how crafty our Supermom brains are! Look at how you changed the helicoptering to sound so innocent: 


“I’ve talked to him many times about what he needs to do to catch up. I’ve asked him where he needs help or additional instruction. I’ve advised him to talk to his teachers and ask them for help.”

Very matter of fact. 

But when you get to overstepping you change it to….

“I’ve floated the idea of talking to his teachers myself and he’s been clear that he doesn’t want me to get involved.” 

You aren’t an overbearing helicopter mom! You are a sweet innocent hot air balloon who just happens to be floating by and observing a DROWNING, HELPLESS BOY WHO IS OVER HIS HEAD AND NEEDS IMMEDIATE HELP! 


Whenever we offer help to our kids, make sure you view them as capable of solving their own problems. “You need my help” energy is very off putting and healthy, independent kids will run screaming for the hills.


To clean up your energy, we start with eliminating the cognitive dissonance. 


Cognitive dissonance is when two competing beliefs bounce around our brains at the same time, making us feel stuck and yuck.


The cognitive dissonance in today’s question is: 

“I want to respect his wishes and let him have the experience of figuring it all out.”


“I don’t want him to suffer any negative academic consequences from his illnesses.” 


Of course you don’t want him to suffer negative consequences from being sick, that doesn’t seem fair, but which of these beliefs is more reflective of the mom you want to be?

Do you want to be the mom who thinks grades are the most important thing?

Do you want to be a mom whose child never suffers or struggles?

Do you want to be the mom who trusts her 15 year old to solve his own problems? 


When my daughter planned a graduation trip in Barcelona for her and 10 friends, my anxiety was on high. This was new and uncomfortable for me. The one thing that helped me calm down enough to learn more about it was remembering the kind of mom I wanted to be. I wanted to be a mom who encourages her teen to travel internationally. I didn’t want to be the kind of mom who makes parenting decisions out of fear and passes down my anxiety. Could bad things happen? Sure. But the statistical probability that she would DIE in Spain (as my anxiety liked to imagine) was very low. 


Ask yourself, what is the worst thing that would happen if he gets D’s & F’s on his report card? Will he get so down on himself he’ll drop out of school, start doing drugs and become homeless?  Will this be the beginning of the end? Will his grades stay D’s and F’s and he’ll have to live with you for an extra 2 years while he attends community college? Will your off the grid summer plans get interrupted because he’ll need internet access to complete his summer school course work? 


Listen to that anxious brain, hear what it has to say, but don’t indulge it. Do math instead. What is the mathematical likelihood these scenarios will happen? Can I live with this consequence in order to live my values? 


  1. First, separate out the facts from your thoughts about the facts. 
  2. Notice how the anxiety brain is futurizing and catastrophizing. 
  3. Do Math. What is the statistical probability that disaster will ensue? 
  4. Identify the cognitive dissonance. What are the competing beliefs that are keeping you stuck? 
  5. Connect with your values and who you want to be as a mom. 


Help for helicoptering

Help for helicoptering

Help for helicoptering

Supermom Kryptonite – Intermittent Competence meets the Helping Tic


We EXPECT our child’s progress to be this smooth upward trajectory towards independence. They figure out the dmv website, sign up for driver’s ed, and pass their permit test without any input from mom. We think, “this is amazing, my work here is done!” But then prom season arrives and they can’t figure out where it is, when it is, how to buy a ticket, which of their friends is going, what the dress code is or how much it costs. We get frustrated that something so easy seems like an insurmountable task. This is intermittent competence and it’s very normal with teens. 


When this typical teen has a mom who loves to help people feel better and solve problems, it becomes today’s kryptonite. 


Some of us are BORN to help others. We see someone in need and we jump up to help. When anyone (but especially someone we care about!) appears lost, confused, uncertain, unhappy or unwell, our bodies react instinctively like we have an uncontrollable tic. 


Tics are sudden twitches, movements, or sounds that people do repeatedly. A person with a motor tic might blink repeatedly, a person with a vocal tic might grunt repeatedly, and a mom with a helping tic might jump in repeatedly and offer to help with enthusiasm! 


If you’ve got a helping tic, and you are living with a sometimes competent teen, give yourself some grace. Be really proud of yourself for resisting the urge to step in and take over. You are being triggered daily! Maybe even multiple times a day! Every time you ask the question, “would you like my help?” instead of jumping in, give yourself a reward! 


Help for helicoptering
Stressed young woman in checkered shirt standing with hands near temples near concrete wall with colorful brain sketch. Concept of studying too much


Supermom Powerboost – The Metaphor Game 


You can play by yourself or with kids but it’s especially helpful when you have a problem you are trying to solve.

It works with anything but let’s imagine you see a weeping willow tree with limbs dangling over a still pond. Ask yourself, “How is my situation with my son’s grades like this willow tree?” 

Let your right brain come up with a creative response like, 

“I’m like the long limbs dangling into the pond, and my son is the pond. I’m trying to insert myself even though the pond doesn’t really need me in the water with him. He likes me being nearby, providing shade and a calm presence, but I can mind my own business and trust that my presence here is enough.” 


Or maybe you see a flock of birds flying above and ask, “How is my situation like that flock of birds?” Use your imagination to help guide you toward a solution. 

“I’m like the lead bird, taking my flock in the direction I know is best for everyone. One bird has gone rogue and is flying in a direction I don’t want him to. How can I steer him back in my direction? Maybe we can follow him for a while and see if he’s got a better idea? Maybe it’s time for him to lead his own flock and this makes me sad, but that’s ok?” 


Anxiety is on the left hemisphere of the brain. Metaphors bring us over to the right hemisphere of our brains where we have access to creative problem solving and outside the box thinking. 


Quote of the Day

“If you want to enter a state of pure connection with your child, you can achieve this by setting aside any sense of superiority.” Dr. Shefali Tsabary

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