Family, Kids & Relationships

Study uncovers what happens when children of helicopter parents grow up

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Helicopter parenting can seriously hold kids back at any age — even when they’re in college. New Florida State University research shows that young adults whose parents are over-involved are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety symptoms, higher use of alcohol and drugs, lower academic achievement, and increased social and relationship problems.

The review included over 70 previous research studies that uncovered the effects of overparenting on “emerging adults” from age 18 to 29. The findings “overwhelmingly suggested negative associations between overparenting and emerging adults’ development in the psychological, behavioral, social and relational, learning/academic and career domains.”

Overparenting, school burnout, and self-esteem

One of the previous studies from the same university highlighted that when parents of young adults are overprotective and over-controlling with respect to their child’s developmental needs, it leads to lower self-control in college students and makes them more likely to experience school burnout.

The researchers of the 2019 study on burnout said that when parents hover, their children get fewer chances to practice self-control skills. Frank Fincham, Ph.D., one of the study authors, explained: “Self-control allows us to regulate behavior in order to achieve our long-term goals. It is a skill that can be learned. For example, people can learn to … remove temptation, like switching off a cell phone and putting it in another room, which makes self-control easier.”

The study found that students with overly involved parents and compromised self-control skills were more likely to experience school burnout. Burnout occurs when students become exhausted from stress and schoolwork. “They feel increasingly helpless, hopeless and resentful, exerting less effort on their studies, which leads to lower grades,” said Fincham. “In some cases, students end up dropping out of college.”

Neuropsychologist Britt Frank agrees that helicopter parenting can do serious damage to young adults. As she told Deseret News, “Adult children who have overprotective parents can develop depression, anxiety disorders, struggle in relationships and experience difficulty with self-esteem and self-confidence.”

What parents can do instead

While over-involved parents are obviously not intentionally harming their children (and rather, believe that they’re being helpful), Frank suggests that parents need to work on their own self-control so that their anxiety over their children’s successes, failures, and everyday actions doesn’t get the best of them and damage their relationship with their kids or hinder their children’s journey to independence: “That’s a much bigger gift to our children than running their lives.”

Some parents are monitoring students’ phones to make sure they’re going to class, or getting involved with students’ library fines, at a time when their children are supposed to be learning to transition to adulthood. Fincham reasons, “We all want them to be successful, but we can’t ensure their success. You have got to have faith in the foundation you laid down for them as a child and that they will act in accordance with the values you instilled in them.”

Of course it’s not always easy for parents to determine how much control is too much. Some young adults may need more accountability, especially if they are still financially dependent and struggling with responsibility in that regard, family therapist Irene Little explained to Deseret News.

But there are ways to be appropriately involved in your child’s studies without crossing the line. For example, look for opportunities to join school events and meetings that are actually designed for parents, rather than always interjecting on your child’s behalf. Or if your child tells you about a conflict with a teacher or another student, ask your child how you can support them, rather than trying to fix the situation for them.

Physician and parenting expert Deborah Gilboa offered this advice in Parents magazine: “Remembering to look for opportunities to take one step back from solving our child’s problems will help us build the resilient, self-confident kids we need.”

Above all, suggested Ming Cui, Ph.D., the professor of human development and family science who co-authored the most recent research at Florida State University, take your kids’ viewpoint into account. Be sure to have an open discussion with your young adult children about what level of contact and involvement they feel is most beneficial for them and for your relationship.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.