The phenomenon of helicopter parenting: How students and their parents can work together to fix it

Heydi Ortiz, Managing Editor

The main goal for parents is to provide love and security to their children so that when they leave the nest they’re prepared to confront the real world on their own. But what happens when parents can’t let go? What happens when helicopter parents begin to hover over and micromanage their now fully grown adults in college?

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Of course, there’s nothing wrong with parents who want to know what’s going on in the lives of their college kids but where do parents cross the line? Is the line drawn at making phone calls to their professors to ensure that they’re grades aren’t plummeting? Is it visiting college admissions alongside their children, tracking them or even making phone calls to higher up people when their kids are in trouble?

There hasn’t been much recent study on the phenomenon of so-called “helicopter parents” but a study from 2010 surveyed 300 college freshmen from all over the country and found that students with helicopter parents were less likely to venture out of their comfort zone, were more vulnerable, anxious and self-conscious.

“These helicopter parents are parents that are always around their kids, trying to figure out how to help them and unfortunately now we’re seeing what are called ‘Snowplow’ parents, that it’s not just that they’re all around, they’re trying to like pave this way for them,” said Associate Professor, Jody Nicholson, who teaches a Lifespan Development course.

“If you have a parent who just constantly says ‘You are so smart’, ‘You are so smart’, ‘You are so smart’, and navigates you through the world so you only get messages of ‘I am so smart’, and you come to UNF, and in your first semester you fail your very first test…well how do you react? If you’ve always been told you’re so smart, you react and say ‘Okay, I guess I’m not smart,’ said Nicholson.

She says that parents talking about strengths in terms of the process, not the outcome, can help students see themselves as more malleable and helps to integrate the idea that failure is part of the process of learning which may not be conveyed in the helicopter parenting mode.

A study conducted in 2013 and reported in the Journal of Child and Family studies found that out of 297 college students, those with helicopter parents had significantly higher levels of depression and less satisfaction in life. 

Another study from 2011, found “college students who reported that their parents were over-involved and controlling in their lives had lower psychological well-being and were more likely to take medications for depression and anxiety,” and the previous 2013 study agreed.

The 2013 study also found that “Helicopter parenting behaviors may also interfere with feeling a sense of competence because such parental actions can convey the message that parents do not have faith in their child’s abilities.”

So, what can you do if you have a helicopter parent?

Nicholson says there are classes at UNF that you can take to help alleviate the transition from home life to college including Lifespan Development and Stress Management.

“My three-year-old, I’m teaching her how to ask questions, how to request things, how to order at a restaurant, I’m trying to transfer skills so that she knows how to do them and she’s not so dependent on me. For young kids taking them to the doctors and getting them involved in the conversation. If a child has never experienced these on their own, then yeah they’re going to have to call up their parents and ask,” said Nicholson. 

“We’re not trying to protect our kids, we’re trying to prepare them. Life is going to happen. There’s going to be problems and failures and if you give them the tools to prepare for them then they can weather the storm. If you try to protect them from trying to experience those, they are going to crash and burn,” said Nicholson. 

“Your kid is going to be bullied, your kid is going to be a bully at some point, your kid is going to get their heartbroken, they’re going to not like the way they look, they’re gonna have a best friend betray them, they’re gonna have all these experiences you had that really hurt you but that’s life.”

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