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Helicopter Parents: When Mothering Is Smothering
You know who the helicopter parents are — they're the ones who hover over their child's every move at the playground, who micromanage their kids' playdates and who oversee every aspect of their children's lives. They are not just involved; they're over-involved. As annoying as these hyper-parents are, most of us expect that this helicoptering behavior gradually ends in high school and certainly by the time parents send their kids off to college.
Not so. Apparently, once parents start hovering, some find it hard to stop, even when their sons or daughters head off to college. They may call professors about grades, or complain about room assignments. But the consequences for interfering with the budding young adults' lives are serious. According to a recent study, unhappiness, dissatisfaction and depression are much more common among college students who feel their parents are too involved in their lives.
Over-controlling parents are not new. They tell their children what they should do, think, feel. They swoop in at the first sign of challenge or discomfort. They fight their children's battles for them, rather than coaching from the sidelines and letting their kids make their own mistakes. As a result, children of this type of parent lose the opportunity to use and develop their own problem-solving and decision-making skills.
Caring or Controlling?
Parental involvement is not all bad, of course. Parents need to set standards for behavior and let their children know they can count on their parents' caring and concern. Researchers make a distinction between behavioral and psychological control, however. Behavioral control is practiced by parents who, for example, make sure cell phones are off during study hours or who require their children to be responsible for certain chores.
Psychological control — encouraging kids to feel guilty or withholding love and affection — is actually damaging, and has been linked to depression and a lack of self control. But parental involvement must evolve as children mature. As children’s need for autonomy increases with their age, parents need to adjust their level of involvement and control to their child’s stage of development.
Even behavioral control can become psychologically controlling (and damaging) the authors of this study write, "…some types of behavioral control (e.g., household rules that are too strict for a child’s age) can be experienced as psychologically controlling (e.g., child feels guilty for disappointing the parent). Thus, the negative effects associated with psychological control may also be found in association with developmentally inappropriate behavioral control…"
Cell phones, also known as the world's longest umbilical cords, have made the problem worse. Today's tough economic climate is no help either. The expense of college combined with the dismal odds of finding a decent job leave some parents feeling they need to step in to protect their investment.
While the current study does not address whether or not helicopter parents are on the rise, its lead author, Holly Schiffrin, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington, does point out that more and more colleges are now running parent orientation days that encourage parents to learn how to ease back on the reins and let go.
The researchers' main goal was to see how parenting style, especially helicopter parenting, affects the psychological well being of children.
Researchers showed 297 college students a series of statements on parenting behavior and asked them to rate how strongly the statements fit their mother's parenting style. Strong agreement with statements like "If I am having an issue with my roommate, my mother would try to intervene" would indicate helicopter parenting, while strong agreement with "My mother encourages me to make my own decisions and take the responsibility for the choices I have made" would not.
Students also filled out questionnaires commonly used to assess their happiness and satisfaction level, as well as one testing for symptoms of depression.
Those students with a helicopter mom were more likely to be depressed and less likely to be satisfied with their life. Specific questions traced this to a feeling that their mother was not meeting their psychological needs but was instead wrecking their sense of competence and autonomy. Most students in the study were female (88%) and white (85%). Around half were first-year students.
There can be a fine line between being a concerned and helpful parent and helicoptering, between mothering and smothering, especially if your child calls you asking for help. The trick is to understand what kind of help they need.
The authors distinguish between helicopter parents and "autonomy supportive parents." If your child calls with a problem with a coach or professor, rather than solving the problem for them, ask questions that help him or her find a way to deal with it. This is far more helpful in the long run than stepping in yourself, even if your child does not immediately agree. Parents who are still trying to run their adult children's lives — planning their schedules, discussing grades with their teachers and trying to micro-manage their relationships — are probably doing their children a lot more harm than good.
"Helping or Hovering? The Effects of Helicopter Parenting on College Students’ Well-Being" is published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies and will also appear in a future print issue of the journal.
February 27, 2013
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