Her parents admitted they’d installed monitoring software on their daughter’s laptop and cell phone. And it wasn’t unusual for them to drive 600 miles from Kansas to Ohio to check up unannounced on the 21-year-old senior at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.
It was too much for honors student Aubrey Ireland, who took her parents to court and got a civil stalking restraining order to prevent them from getting within 500 feet of her.
While extreme, the 2012 case underscores the dangers of being an over-controlling so-called helicopter parent of a college student. With more research finding an array of damaging impacts, experts are offering a couple of words of advice: Back off.
Support without smothering
“I’ve dealt with parents who would dispute their own son’s or daughter’s grade on an assignment in class,” said Chris Segrin, a University of Arizona communications professor and head of the Department of Communication. “Supporting your child is one thing, but parents have to ask themselves if they are superimposing their goals and anxieties on their child.”
Segrin coauthored a 2012 study showing a correlation between helicopter parents and offspring with a “greater sense of entitlement.”
“Over-parenting also has a signi¿cant and negative indirect association with family satisfaction, through lower-quality parent-child communication,” the study concluded.
A 2013 study titled “Helping or Hovering: The Effects of Helicopter Parenting on College Students’ Well-Being,” reached a similar conclusion. It surveyed 297 college undergraduates in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region.
“Students who reported having over-controlling parents reported significantly higher levels of depression and less satisfaction with life,” according to the study. “Furthermore, the negative effects of helicopter parenting on college students’ well-being were largely explained by the perceived violation of students’ basic psychological needs for autonomy and competence.”
Know your boundaries
For a parent, it might not always be clear when you’re going overboard, so it’s best to talk honestly with your child about his or her needs and boundaries.
“Every child is different,” said Michelle Givertz, an associate professor of communication studies at California State University, Chico, who has worked with Segrin on a number of studies. “Every child matures at a different pace. This is not a black-and-white issue.”
But it is for C. Lee Reed, who writes a blog called “Helicopter Mom and Just Plane Dad” and makes no excuses for being a helicopter parent. “If you’re going to have a child, you should be involved in their life and you should know what’s going on,” said this mother of a high school senior. “People who don’t have a clue about what their child is doing or don’t want to be involved in their life – well, that makes no sense to me.”
But while Reed says she knows “at any given moment where [her] daughter is,” she too admits she’s seen parents go too far.
Givertz has seen parents like that, too – moms and dads “engaged in age-inappropriate parenting and doing things for their children that children should do for themselves,” such as doing the research and writing papers for their child.
“I’ve had students come to my office to seek advisement, and they bring their parents with them,” she said. “I’ve seen parents who feel free to call the president of the university if their child has a problem with their dorm roommate.”
What those parents don’t realize is that they’re creating young adults who are unprepared to cope in an increasingly competitive world. “They don’t have the ability to read an assignment, complete an assignment or turn it in by a certain date,” Givertz said. “How is that going to play out when they find a job?”
Allow your child to mature on his own
In addition to professional problems, helicopter parenting might take a serious psychological toll. A 2011 paper by researchers Terri LeMoyne and Tom Buchanan found that college students with controlling parents not only felt “more negatively about themselves” and were “more apt to be medicated for anxiety and/or depression” but that they were also more likely to take pain pills without a prescription.
So how can parents be helpful and remain involved in their college student’s life without going too far? College officials who work with parents of freshmen say parents should ask their child when it would be appropriate to call, or simply schedule specific times to talk on the phone or video chat.
Parents can also less obtrusively communicate with their child through email or direct messaging on sites such as Twitter and Facebook. If money is a concern, parents can buy a reloadable, pre-paid debit card that notifies them when and where purchases are being made so that they don’t have to bug or harangue.
Experts say parents should also be aware that a growing number of colleges have Web pages that can link them to support groups, hotlines, university contacts and more.
Jaime Gresley, director of New Students and Family Programs at the University of Florida, is among the many who say parents can start to see themselves as “coaches” who are expert in college resources, contacts, support networks, health services and the like in case their child ever needs help.
“I see families as partners,” she said.
—David Ogul, Brand Publishing Writer