Raising Kids with ADHD in the Age of “Snowplow Parenting”By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.
Recently, “snowplow parenting” has replaced “helicopter parenting” as a way to describe parents who are overly involved in their child’s lives. In contrast to helicopter parenting, which is focused on hovering over your child out of fear that they may get hurt or injured, snowplow parenting focuses on clearing a path and removing any obstacles that may get in the way of your child’s current and future success. Like helicopter parenting, snowplow parenting stems from fear, but it’s a fear that your child will not achieve everything that is needed be successful in today’s ultracompetitive world.
The New York Times article that’s credited with popularizing the “snowplow parent” phrase notes that this parenting style often starts early, when parents “try to make sure their toddlers are never compelled to do anything that may frustrate them,” then escalates when school starts, with parents “running a forgotten assignment to school or calling a coach to request that their child make the team. Later, it’s writing them an excuse if they procrastinate on schoolwork, paying college counselor thousands of dollars to perfect their applications, or calling their professors to argue about a grade.”
The consequences of snowplow parenting are potentially severe. If kids rarely experience (and overcome) failure, they won’t develop resiliency. If they aren’t given the opportunity to tackle child- or teenage-sized problems, they won’t develop foundational skills that are essential for tackling adult-sized problems in the future. Long-term, kids may ultimately fail to take responsibility for their own actions and direction in life.
What is left out of conversations about snowplow parenting are the struggles faced by parents of kids and teens with ADHD. Having ADHD makes it harder to do things independently or meet the academic, organizational, behavioral, and social expectations that might be appropriate for other kids of the same age. Kids and teens with ADHD actually need extra involvement from their parents if they are going to succeed.
But how much involvement is too much? If a parent rushes home to pick up a forgotten homework assignment that their teen with ADHD worked hard to complete the night before, are they an overly involved parent who is preventing their teen from learning a valuable life lesson about responsibility, or are they a responsible parent who is providing the extra support that their teen needs? If a parent of a child with ADHD calls the school to explain why their child was running late again this morning and requests that they not be punished, or meets with a coach to ask if their child can have one more chance to remain on the team, are they overly involved or are they reasonably accommodating the special needs that come with having ADHD?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but they highlight how articles, posts, and tweets about the perils of snowplow parenting can cause anxiety for parents who are already worried that their child’s ADHD may prevent them from developing the skills they need to succeed in life. It’s important for parents to remember that kids with ADHD do need more support than kids without ADHD. Expectations should be adjusted to accommodate their developmental level and their ADHD symptoms.
That said, this doesn’t mean that there should be no expectations at all. It just means there should be appropriate expectations. Knowing how to set expectations appropriately and how to support your child in a way that will help them grow and succeed with ADHD is a challenge. In the next series of posts, I’ll cover topics that address this challenge and offer some practical tips for striking the right balance when it comes to being an involved parent of a child or teen with ADHD.
ABOUT DR. MARY ROONEY
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.
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