Helicopter parenting college students: Study shows ill effects

Helicopter parenting college students can affect adult development, shows a new University of Mary Washington study. Parents doing everything from laundry to banking for their adult children can undermine confidence and satisfaction in life.

Helicopter parenting can have a negative impact on college-aged adults. Here, a student celebrates at Columbia University's graduation ceremony in May.

When a student attending University of Mary Washington in Fredricksburg, Va., decided to make a weekend visit out of the city to another college, she made one mistake – she didn't tell Mom. 

Worried after attempts to reach her daughter by phone failed, the student's mom made a missing person report to police, triggering an Amber Alert

Holly Schiffrin, the student's psychology professor, recalls the incident as a perfect example of her new study on the effects of helicopter parenting, specifically by moms, on college-aged adults. 

Parents think that because staying involved in elementary, middle, and high school worked, then staying involved in college will work as well, but Professor Schiffrin says that is not necessarily the case: "You may be trying to help, but your child may not be perceiving it as help, and because of that it may be having a negative impact on them.” 

The girl whose mother triggered an Amber Alert told the story to Schiffrin in the instructor’s senior seminar on parenting.
The student was embarrassed when she recalled the story, but in the way she told it, Schiffrin says, “ … it seemed somewhat typical behavior for her mother, so [her mother] might not have been that embarrassed.” 

The study, released Feb. 12, found that behaviors associated with helicopter parenting have a negative impact on the college-aged adult's feelings of autonomy, competency, and their relationship with their parents. Conventional wisdom in the field of psychology suggests that these three characteristics are necessary for healthy emergence into adulthood. 

Of the 297 students – ages 18 to 23  – who agreed to complete an online survey, 41 percent said their mothers expect them to call or text their whereabouts; and 34 percent said their mothers worried if there was no immediate response to a call or text. 

Mothers managed the bank accounts of 29 percent of respondents. About 41 percent of those surveyed said their mothers did their laundry. 

When parents do things for their children, they are effectively telling their children that they cannot handle these issues by themselves, Schiffrin says.

Feeling less competent was associated with student depression and decreased satisfaction, the research found. 

Schiffrin said professors and administrators often believe helicopter parenting is a rising trend: Technology may be one reason. For example, almost half of respondents said their mothers expected them to call or text her regularly with their whereabouts. This would be more difficult in an age when telephones on college campuses were numbered and attached to a wall. 

"We had one pay phone in the hallway for some 30 girls to use," Schiffrin says, recalling her undergraduate years in the early 1990s. "Contact is constant now and these are decisions [that] a generation ago, students would have made on their own because it wasn't easy to contact their parents." Plus, long distance calls were very expensive. 

It's also easier for parents to get the information to answer their children's questions or to help organize their activities. Many colleges have designed parent-specific websites to supplement their online information offerings. 

A number of colleges provide parent orientation in addition to student orientation. 

But how much help does a student really need?

"That's the million-dollar question," Schiffrin says. "Where is that line between being intrusive and being supportive?"

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