For African-Americans, ‘helicopter parenting’ takes on far more sobering definition

ORLANDO, Fla. — The concept of helicopter parenting has bred a spectrum of opinions about mothers and fathers who are overprotective of their children and hypervigilant when it comes to steering them down a successful path. Now a new study by researchers at the University of Central Florida examines how African-American mothers can exhibit all the hallmarks of being helicopter parents, but their motivations go beyond preventing broken bones on the playground or finishing homework: they’re doing everything they can to ensure their children survive.

The study focused on a group of African-American mothers raising boys and young men in the U.S., and ultimately found that black parents often live in fear that their sons will be stopped by law enforcement authorities and killed. This anxiety leads to a host of physical symptoms and affects how these parents care for and teach their sons.

“We’ve been hearing from mothers about these fears throughout our professional careers,” says lead author Ann Shillingford, an associate professor of counseling, in a university release. “We decided to look at the data and we heard similar stories over and over again. This is a collective experience that had not been documented, until now.”

The researchers interviewed 19 African-American mothers from different regions of the country with at least one male child of varying ages. All of the mothers had attended college for some period of time and most had completed their degrees. Each interview lasted between 40 and 90 minutes. The interviewees shared their own stories and the stories of other women in their network.

While some of the interviewees viewed themselves as “crazy and brave” to raise boys given the number of challenges in their lives, the mothers described coaching their sons on how to behave when they are stopped by law enforcement just to increase the odds that they survive the encounter. Many of the women interviewed called this coaching session “the talk,” which typically ended with the plea, “I want you to come home alive.”

“They have a baseline of fear for their sons, which causes them to be a bit overbearing. They reported wanting to control their sons’ movements and they give them ‘the talk’ in hopes that it will protect them outside the home,” explains co-author Richelle Joe says. “This is a kind of helicopter parenting, but not for academic success. It is to ensure survival.”

Shillingford and Joe say the facets of “the talk” were generally similar and included these suggestions:

  • Keep your hands where they can see them.
  • Don’t make sudden movements.
  • Don’t give them a reason to hurt you.
  • Be polite, even if you are angry for the unjust nature of the situation.
  • I know you did nothing wrong, but don’t give them a reason.

The conversation can sometimes backfire, the authors found, and winds up creating even more stress for the already anxious mothers. Yet despite this familiar feeling, researchers say women typically keep this stress to themselves and don’t share their experiences with others — even if they’re going through similar situations.

“They are dismissed at work and often told their ‘good boys’ are going to be ok, or they are told they are overreacting,” says Shillingford says.

Shillingford and Joe plan to delve even deeper into the journeys of African-American mothers and examine the coping mechanisms they use to help them through their stress and challenges.

“We have a duty to provide culturally sensitive services to support this population so that they can take off their masks and experience the empathy that is lacking in many aspects of their lives,” says Joe.

The study was published in the journal The Professional Counselor.

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Ben Renner

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