It’s not a new story. But perhaps the story is that it is still a story. We wrote our first post about the phenomenon of helicopter parenting on College Parent Central back in 2009 and it wasn’t a new concept then. A lot of attention has been given to this parenting style over the past few years, but it appears that not much has changed. However, with the release of a new book by Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Freshman Dean at Stanford, the issue of helicopter parenting – and its consequences – has gained visibility and has become news once again. (Watch for our review of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success in a few weeks.)
Helicopter parents are such a staple these days that the term was admitted to the Merriam Webster dictionary in 2011. This dictionary defines the term as “a parent who is overly involved in the life of his/her child.” It includes parents who are overprotective or show excessive interest in their child’s life, those who micromanage their children, who intervene in conflicts, solve children’s problems, and make important decisions for their child. It often begins early and continues well through college – and beyond.
Most parents who helicopter do so with the best of intentions. They want the best for their children, they want to keep them safe and happy, they want them to go to good schools and get ahead in life. However, this excessive involvement creates young adults who lack control of their lives, who lack intellectual and emotional freedom, and who are quick to say simply, “My parents know what’s best for me.” Having helicopter parents does not bother most young adults. Because they have had little opportunity to practice many life skills, they are not capable of functioning on their own and abdicate responsibility to their parents.
However, much of the recent research suggests, as Lythcott-Haims points out in her book, that this phenomenon of helicopter parents appears to have a strong correlation to the increasing prevalence of student stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues in college students. A 2010 study conducted by a researcher at Keene State University found that students with helicopter parents were less open to new ideas and more anxious and self-conscious than “free range” students who had been given responsibility and were not constantly monitored. A 2011 study conducted at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga found that children of hovering parents were more likely to be medicated for anxiety and depression.
As parents of college students – or high school students preparing for college – we need to provide our students with opportunities to practice and develop important life skills. We need to ask them to develop these skills as much as we ask them to develop the academic disciplines that will help them get into college. Without the balance, the confidence to know that they can cope with problems, weather discomfort when it inevitably comes, make their own decisions, they may get into college – only to falter once they are there. We need to stop doing for them what they are capable of doing for themselves so they will not fall victim to the thinking that they cannot do things without us.
As parents, does that mean that we are out of a job? Absolutely not. According to one Brigham Young University researcher who studied the relationship between helicopter parenting and warmth, “Lack of control does not mean lack of involvement, warmth, and support.” We need to be engaged. We need to teach our students how to make decisions, and we need to train them for life, responsibility and financial literacy. We need to get comfortable seeing them uncomfortable and know that important life lessons come from falling on your face sometimes. That’s hard work.
Stepping back may be harder than swooping in, but then, parenting has never been easy.