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‘Helicopter parents’ have trouble letting college students grow up

Frequent parental involvement can impair the college experience, survey says

Published: Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Updated: Tuesday, November 9, 2010 06:11


Tien Tien / Tufts Daily

Parents who practice excessive surveillance of or communication with their university-aged children can adversely affect their childrens’ college lives, a recent survey found.

The helicopter may be slightly farther away, but make no mistake — it's still hovering.

As the newest class of Jumbos settles into college life and the immediate thrill of increased autonomy fades, so too does the mistaken belief that protective — excessively or otherwise — parents colloquially known as "helicopter parents" will lessen their grip now that their chicks have flown the proverbial coop.

The rituals of helicopter parenting — excessive parental attention or management — are facilitated when the child, the object being hovered over, is under the parent's roof. But the potentially exasperating habits of helicopter parents often extend beyond high school graduation and through college matriculation.

A survey at Keene State College in New Hampshire conducted earlier this year assessed 300 freshmen and found that students who have helicopter parents were more anxious, neurotic and dependent than their counterparts with less−involved parents.

According to Professor of Sociology Paula Aymer, who will teach a course titled "Family and Intimate Relationships" next semester, helicopter parenting of college−aged children stems from a newfound lack of direction on the part of parents whose children have left home for college.

"I find that, for parents, there's a loss of purpose and a sense of being out of control [when children go to college]," Aymer said. "That's why you have young people whose parents try to direct them from a distance — what courses to take, what friends to have — micromanaging, so that parents can still try to be involved."

The beginning of this empty−nest period, a traumatic experience for some parents, is often what triggers reactive helicopter parenting, according to Aymer.

"They spend their lives preparing, nurturing, following some well−practiced rules of parenting, and then it's almost as if their purpose for being is over, and they don't want that," Aymer said.

She explained, however, that helicopter parenting is not in store for all parents whose children have left home.

"For some, it's actually a freeing experience," Aymer said. "For some women, in particular, the pressure is off. They can go back to school or take more hours off work or take up a hobby, because they have completed a job. They've accomplished what they were expected to do."

Aymer stressed that fathers are often just as affected by "empty−nest syndrome" as their female counterparts but tend to internalize rather than manifest those feelings through helicopter parenting.

"For fathers, this is equally as stressful, but they don't talk much about it because the culture gives much more freedom to males and expects them to manage their private lives much more independently than it does for females," she said. "We only hear about what happens with the mother."

Tufts Professor of Child Development Fred Rothbaum, who is currently teaching a course about parent−child relations, said that disproportionate parental involvement stems from something of a culture shock.

"There are pretty substantial changes when students leave home, and there's an initial change where it's very hard for parents to adjust to the fact that they don't have the same kind of authority that they had when the child [was] living at home," Rothbaum said.

According to Rothbaum, helicopter parents put their college−aged children at a developmental disadvantage.

"Prior to college and up through college, the parents' role is to help their kids prepare to have a tremendous amount of autonomy because [the children] are making all of the decisions in their life," he said. "Helicopter parents, who hover and are overly involved in the child's life … make it very difficult for the child to make the transition, because so much freedom is thrust upon them."

The effects of this shift don't only become apparent via long−distance helicopter parenting, Rothbaum said, but often when a child returns home temporarily.

"When the child comes back home for vacations, and particularly over the summer … they're so used to [having] freedom over every aspect of their lives, and they're suddenly thrust back into high school living conditions," he said. "The assumptions on both sides are very different about how much monitoring the parents are going to provide — being able to stay out late, who they're hanging out with, even what kind of clothes they wear."

Assistant Professor of Child Development Tama Leventhal, who teaches a course on adolescent development, agreed with Rothbaum's take on excessive parental involvement as detrimental to students' positive college experiences.

"I think the teens have to learn how to become more autonomous and independent and learn how to rely on themselves and make their own decisions," she said. "In college, they have to start taking more responsibility because they have more freedom to do the things they want to do. They have to decide what they want to eat for breakfast, when they want to wake up … I think that's part of becoming an adult and moving away from their parents and from adolescence."

According to Leventhal, the huge array of channels through which parents and children can now communicate, from phone calls to texting to e−mail to Skype and beyond, makes it harder for children to gain necessary breathing room.

"I think teens stay more emotionally connected to their parents now, even when they go to college, because they can just talk to them at any time," she said.

Still, Aymer said that the advent of new communication technologies only impedes the separation between parent and child if the child allows it to.

"I think [the increased number of methods of communication] are only helpful if the young person wants to be in touch," Aymer said. "They need not answer their e−mail because maybe it's not as pressing as a telephone ringing in their room, which was the method of communication for their parents when they were in school. The young person is still in charge to answer, to pick the phone up, but it does give parents and young people who have meaningful relationships more ways to communicate."

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