When it comes time for emerging adult children to head to college, the separation process can be anxiety-inducing and confusing for everyone involved, especially when there have been developmental challenges and struggles throughout the years growing up. Often, the transition to college triggers all family members’ vulnerabilities as they struggle with the feelings attached to this milestone event.
Unfortunately, one pattern for the ways in which families sometimes adapt to this circumstance has been termed “helicopter parenting.” Coined in 1969 by Dr. Haim Ginott, the phrase accurately describes parents’ actions, but it doesn’t sufficiently address the well-meaning intentions behind these behaviors, or the fact that the behaviors are often carried out by the entire family system. Everyone contributes to the “helicopter” outcome.
The phrase became especially popular in the early 2000s as baby boomers and Generation X parents began sending their children to college. College administrators noticed parental behaviors such as calling to wake their children up for class or complaining to professors and administrators about grades on their children’s behalves. That same helicoptering behavior has even impacted the children’s job searches; in fact, 30% of recruiters have had a parent submit a resume for a child, and 15% have had a parent complain when their child wasn’t hired.
Helicopter parenting is thought to be on the rise, and it’s self-reported most commonly in the Northeast and West Coast (especially in urban areas). Generally, helicopter parenting follows three principal patterns: parents do for their children what the children can do for themselves, parents do for their children what they can almost do for themselves, or parenting behavior is motivated by their own egos.
The signs of helicopter parenting typically revolve around obsessing over their children’s activities and well-being. Helicopter parents may feel emotional pain when they’re not around their child, and they may also keep tabs on their children at all times (whether in-person or electronically). They may express wanting the best for their child by spoiling him or her and also piling on too much praise. Helicopter parents are also well-known for lobbying for their children to various authority figures, such as professors and bosses.
However well-intentioned this parenting style is, it can have detrimental effects on the children. In 2013, 95% of college counselling centers reported that the number of students with significant psychological problems is a growing concern on their campus. Helicopter parenting has been linked to “problematic development in emerging adulthood… by limiting opportunities for emerging adults to practice and develop important skills needed for becoming self-reliant adults.”
For example, college students with helicopter parents self-report significantly higher levels of depression and less satisfaction in life. Also, a 2014 study found a correlation between highly structured childhoods and a lack of executive function capabilities, suggesting that emerging adults don’t have the ability to decide their goal-directed actions on their own. Finally, helicopter parenting is associated with a low self-worth and an increased tendency to engage in risky behaviors such as smoking or binge drinking.
Luckily, the potentially detrimental effects of helicopter parenting can be addressed when families develop connected autonomy. With connected autonomy, family members undergo a developmental transformation and develop clear, communicated and effective boundaries. Together, these boundaries allow family members to be available for emotional and material support, while also honoring the occasional need for separation during this transition. To learn more about connected autonomy and its relationship to “helicopter parenting,” contact Yellowbrick today.