"The issue is the maturity in a child," said Dr. Michael Finkelstein, who practices holistic, integrated medicine in Bedford, N.Y. "As children get older, they get more capable and need to be able to spread wings so they can fly on their own. Parents who inhibit this by solving problems and taking away initiative to learn by taking things over, enabling, entitling — they raise children who to some degree are incompetent. They create a state of prolonged dependency that could be lifelong. ... It sends a signal you're unable to do things on your own."
"We don't want parents to go too far the other way, though," said Nelson, associate professor. "So much of our work on parenting shows how important it is for parents to still be involved and be supportive. But not overly involved. ... We encourage parents to check in with their kids, but not check up on them."
Be a sounding board and guidance counselor, he advised. Then, "parents can express confidence in a child's ability to make the right decision."
Too often, said Levine, parents are "in" their children's lives constantly, checking grades, second-guessing or making decisions. "Can you imagine what it would be like to have someone access your life every minute of the day? Your spouse checking in on how you're doing at work? There are incredibly crazy consequences."
Skillful parenting includes worrying, Finkelstein noted. But it's controlling your own behavior, not the child, as you worry: "Hovering based in fear is not good." Parents should equip their kids to live in the world safely, not teach them the world is bad and to stay away.
Researchers say not all the effects of helicopter parenting are bad. Unlike behavioral and psychological control, which are both about a parent's wishes and well-being, helicopter parenting is about helping the child avoid life's pitfalls. That parent-child relationship is typically quite cordial.
"But the relationship is not as good as those where parents are warm, supportive and involved, but not overly involved," Nelson said.
The more parents "helicopter," the less students engage in school, the BYU research found. School engagement includes factors like completing homework and attending classes or being on time.
"There are not a ton of negative outcomes," said Padilla-Walker. "The studies, taken together, indicate perhaps helicopter parenting is kind of promoting a failure-to-launch mentality, but it is not necessarily leading to drug use, alcohol, other maladaptive behaviors."
Two other studies, she said, did find lower self-worth and more drug use. However, BYU didn't review those issues.
A 2007 study led by University of Indiana researchers found that kids with helopats had lower grades, though they were generally happy with college. According to the Washington Post, "The authors suggest that perhaps the reason some parents intervened was to support a student who was having academic difficulties." Other researchers recognize that possibility, too.
Whether parental involvement levels are good or bad may hinge on a grown child's perceptions, said a recent study in the Journal of Marriage and Family. The researchers, led by University of Texas at Austin researchers, noted that intense parental support "may be beneficial to grown children in many circumstances," if they desire support. If it is seen as imposed, helicopter parenting is bad.
But overall, said lead researcher Karen L. Fingerman, of U.T. Austin, "Our data suggest that heavy or intense involvement is not bad for grown children." Except, she added, when parents believe their children need too much support. Those parents report less life satisfaction. Parental perceptions of their involvement matter for their well-being.
Loosening the grip
Some universities and colleges try to discourage hovering parents, even offering classes to parents on appropriate interaction with college-age children and guidance in "letting go."
Barry Glassner, president of Portland's Lewis & Clark College, takes a different approach. "We encourage parents to be quite engaged with their children while at college, but constructive engagement instead of over-involvement. Instead of intervening on a child's behalf in ways they need to do themselves, help these now-young adults become engaged and take full advantage of the opportunities they have by being in college. This is a period of time in young people's lives when they develop into adults and that means you operate largely on your own and with other adults, not the way of your parents."
He suggests parent encourage their kids to move outside their comfort zones, to see and do new things, like attending plays or football games or other activities they might otherwise eschew.
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