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"Helicopter parents" stir up anxiety, depression

Helicopter parenting picture

Photo by: Chris Meyer

Are you a helicopter parent? Helicopter parents can be identified by their tendency to hover close to their child.

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Indiana University psychologist Chris Meno counsels over-parented students in much the same way she addresses addiction: "I'll make suggestions like, 'Catch yourself when you are about to call home, and ask yourself if there is any way that you could figure the problem out on your own,' or 'If you are calling four times a day, try to get it down to one.'" She said that over-involved "helicopter parenting" is taking a serious toll on the psychological well-being of college students who have not begun to negotiate a balance between asking for consultation and independent decision making. "It's amazing how non-independent students have become," Meno said.

  • Are you a helicopter parent? Helicopter parents can be identified by their tendency to hover close to their child, ready to come to the rescue at the first sign of difficulty or disappointment. They treat their college-age children to the same full-service parenting they have implemented since birth: they pay bills and do laundry; they arrange for utilities to be turned on and off. It is not uncommon for helicopter parents to contact professors about their child's exams or insist that a test be re-graded. Meno has received calls from parents who insist that their child be treated for depression when, she said, "the student is experiencing normal adjustment sorts of issues."
  • Cell phones as virtual umbilical cords. "It's not unusual for students to be calling and checking in with mom three or four times a day. They are calling parents to make decisions about dropping a class, making a purchase, dealing with any kind of setback. Kids today are much more likely to say that their parent is their best friend, and it is good in a way that they have a close relationship, but this kind of dependency leads to a lack of confidence in being able to achieve things on their own."
  • Psychological symptoms of over-parenting. The fruits of parental over-involvement include higher levels of anxiety and depression among adult children, Meno said. "When children aren't given the space to struggle through things on their own, they don't learn to problem-solve very well. They don't learn to be confident in their own abilities, and it can affect their self-esteem. The other problem with never having to struggle is that you never experience failure and can develop an overwhelming fear of failure and of disappointing others. Both the low self-confidence and the fear of failure can lead to depression or anxiety," she said.
  • Growing up is hard to do. Meno also sees a connection between helicopter parenting and difficulty in landing a job after college. A combination of discomfort with uncertainty and overblown expectations of success leads many students to march back home after graduation, she said. "College used to be the time when you had to figure things out for yourself. But these students haven't learned how to sit with not knowing or vagueness or confusing feelings. At the same time, they have been told that they can be anything they want to be. So when they try to go out and get the 'perfect job' and find they can't get it right away, they feel lost. And they move back in with their parents."
  • The path to recovery. Meno works with students to help them build confidence by making independent decisions. "I want the students to find support and counsel within themselves," she said. "I want them to learn to trust their own judgment."
  • Threat levels, shootings and unstable regions. A glance at the morning headlines is all it takes to understand why parents may be more concerned about their children than in recent decades, Meno said. "Helicopter parents may need to first give themselves a break -- of course they want to protect their sons and daughters from the world's perils. But they need to follow this with considering the vital role of developing independence in their child," she said.