In our society, being an involved parent is typically perceived as a worthy goal. We want parents to care about their children’s day to day lives, help them with their homework, go to their sporting events, and help with the college admissions process.
BUT … can you have too much of a good thing? Can a parent be too involved?
Such is the case with so-called “helicopter parents,” who are hyper involved in their children’s lives, monitoring every little detail1. This behavior becomes particularly problematic as these children become young adults and move to college. College is supposed to be a time when young adults learn to develop a sense of autonomy or independence. However, it can be hard to feel like you are capable of doing things on your own when you have a parent who drops in and cleans your dorm for you, reminds you of upcoming exams, and even intervenes on your behalf in grade disputes2-4. One concern for these students is that they are not learning how to handle social and emotional challenges, which could negatively impact their emotional control, making them more susceptible to mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Take-off or crash land?
In recent years, helicopter parenting has been blamed for a plethora of social ills, from ruining summer for children to causing a rise in binge drinking about college-age youth. However, is helicopter parenting actually bad for children as they go into young adulthood?
It turns out, this question is difficult to answer. For starters, there are a number of definitions of what helicopter parenting entails, and few studies have examined it in depth. Another problem is that not all aspects of helicopter parenting are bad. As mentioned, some degree of engagement with the lives of your children – even as they age – is a good thing. For instance, asking about grades, keeping track of social relationships, and helping students balance school and social demands can be extremely helpful to young college students as they learn to navigate their world, but these behaviors can also be taken to a negative extreme. Any measure of helicopter parenting has to be able to account for both the good and bad elements of this parenting style.
In this vein, Dr. Aaron Luebbe of Miami University in Ohio and his colleagues recently developed a new measure to examine the nature of helicopter parenting5. The researchers had two goals:
1. They wanted to systematically define the elements of helicopter parenting
2. They wanted to examine how these elements predicted mental health and academic outcomes for students.
The authors recruited 377 students from a midwestern university to complete a questionnaire on parenting. Students were asked to respond to statements such as “My parent is the kind of parent who…” “likes to have an update on day-to-day life”, “calls to make sure I am awake in the morning”, “intervenes on my behalf with roommate(s)”, or “structures my life for me.” The researchers were particularly interested in how students perceived their parents’ behaviors because parents have been known to report their parenting styles in overly positive lights6. The students also completed a number of measures looking at decision making skills, academic performance, and symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The elements of helicopter parenting
Using a number of statistical analyses, including exploratory factor analysis and structural equal modeling, the researchers found that helicopter parenting can be defined by three primary components:
- Information seeking
- Direct intervention
- Autonomy limiting
Information seeking behaviors include knowing their youth’s daily schedule, knowing their whereabouts at all times, helping them make decisions, and being informed about grades. Direct intervention includes behaviors such as intervening in disputes involving roommates, friends, romantic partners, and even bosses. Finally, autonomy limiting is defined as when a student perceives their parent as preventing them from making their own mistakes, structures their life for them, and fails to support their independent decisions. Ratings from all three of these smaller components can then be combined to produce an overall helicopter parenting score.
Crucially, the researchers took these findings a step further to examine how helicopter parenting related to students overall well-being in school. They found that higher overall helicopter parenting scores were associated with poorer academic achievement on the part of students and less adaptive decision making. Perhaps most interestingly, helicopter parenting was associated with stronger symptoms of anxiety and depression. In other words, helicopter parenting might actually increase the chances that students experience anxiety or depression.
Not always bad
The findings were not all bad, though. In fact, the researchers found that some elements of helicopter parenting actually predicted better outcomes. For instance, by itself, greater information seeking on the part of parents was associated with more rational and intuitive decision making styles among students. Furthermore, information seeking was associated with better academic achievement and greater attachment to the college environment. Thus, not all of these behaviors are negative, but when they are combined, they are associated with bad outcomes for college students.
Combined, the above findings suggest that it is healthier to give children a little space. This is not to say that you should completely separate from your child’s life. In fact, it seems that actively seeking information about how your student is doing in college can give them a sense of support that is supremely helpful as they learn to handle this difficult transitory period. That said, it is also important to remember that these findings are preliminary. They suggest only that helicopter parenting is associated with worse outcomes for students, not that these behaviors actually cause these outcomes. It could very well be that these students had worse mental health and academic performance prior to their parents exhibiting these behaviors. Some helicopter parents may act that way precisely because their child warrants or actually needs this attention. Another possibility is that helicopter parenting is associated with worse mental health outcomes in some way not examined in this study. Future work will need to investigate these possibilities.
1. Cline, F. W., & Fay, J. (1990). Parenting with love and logic: Teaching children responsibility. Colorado Spring, CO: Pinon Press.
2. Colavecchio-Van Sickler, S. (2006, June 19). Mommy, tell my professor he’s not nice: (Over)Involved baby boomer parents—and cell phones—redefine adulthood. Tampa Bay Times Retrieved from http://www.sptimes.com/2006/06/19/State/Mommy__tell_my_profes.shtml
3. Hunt, J. (2008). Make room for daddy… and mommy: Helicopter parents are here. The Journal of Academic Administration in Higher Education, 4(1), 9-11.
4. Somers, P., & Settle, J. (2010). The helicopter parent: Research toward a typology. College and University, 86, 18.
5. Luebbe, A. M., Mancini, K. J., Kiel, E. J., Spangler, B. R., Semlak, J. L., & Fussner, L. M. (2016). Dimensionality of Helicopter Parenting and Relations to Emotional, Decision-Making, and Academic Functioning in Emerging Adults. Assessment, 1-17.
6. Gonzales, N. A., Cauce, A. M., & Mason, C. A. (1996). Interobserver agreement in the assessment of parental behavior and parent‐adolescent conflict: African American mothers, daughters, and independent observers. Child development, 67, 1483-1498.
Sam Hunley holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology from Emory University. He pursued his Bachelor's degree in psychology from Furman University and a master's from Emory. Sam's research, alongside Dr. Stella Lourenco, focuses on human perception of the space surrounding the body, exploring the impact of anxiety and phobias on this perception. Together, they contribute to Anxiety.org articles. Post-graduation, Sam became a Presidential Management Fellow.