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The Effects of Helicopter Parenting On College Students

In the first post on the phenomenon known as helicopter parenting (or over-parenting) we explored some definitions and characteristics, and tried to answer the question if it’s really as common as sensationalists claim. In this post, we look at the effects of this parenting style.

Of course, the common wisdom is that over-parenting is bad, bad, bad. But can it be scientifically proven?

Positive Effects of Involved Parents

The ‘attention-gap’ we explored in the first post is a first indication that what’s seen as helicopter parenting also has positive effects. There’s a fine line between involved parents and over-involved ones.

Studies show a positive correlation between parents’ engagement in their child’s education and better grades, higher test scores, less substance abuse, and better higher education outcomes for instance. (1) In short: involved parents are a good thing.

One big study from 2007 even resulted in positive findings on over-parenting: students with helicopter parents were more engaged in learning and reported greater satisfaction with their colleges. They tended to have more interactions with the faculty, they tended to be involved in active learning, collaborative learning, more often than their peers. Their grades were slightly lower though. (2)

However, this is one of the few studies that have shown positive sides to helicopter parenting. Yes, involved parents affect kids in a positive way, but over-involved parents are a different story according to most studies.

Anecdotal Evidence

College students make for the best anecdotes on helicopter parenting. The Dean of Freshman at Stanford University recently wrote a book, lamenting the parenting choices that resulted in incoming students who could barely take care of themselves.  She lists examples of parents moving to the city their daughter was going to college, or a father threatening with divorce (!) if their daughter didn’t choose a particular major. Certainly sensational stories.

Her point was that parents try so diligently to protect their kids from disappointment, failure and hardship, that the students end up with a brilliant resume—but lack the will, skills, and character to succeed in real life. (3) She’s seen the results in her job: students who end up depressed, or with other mental and emotional problems. Another dean labeled freshmen as “crispies”-who come to college already burned out from the treadmill of success their parents have placed them on and ratcheted up the speed and incline from preschool-and “teacups,” who are ready to break at the slightest stress. (4)

college students

Research on the Effects of Helicopter Parenting

So are these allegations true, or mere anecdotes? Fact is that there have been many studies amongst college students with the goal of showing the negative effects of over-controlling parents.

One study showed a positive relation between over-parenting and depression and anxiety in college students, expressed by taking medication. (5) Emotional problems amongst college students, including depression, are a growing concern. Many colleges report rising statistics of students with depression issues and taking medications. The question is of course if over-parenting is the main cause (performance stress in general has been names a possible cause as well—the result of an educational system focused on scoring well on tests).

Negative effects of over-parenting were confirmed by another study amongst college students, which showed students with helicopter parents were ‘less satisfied with life’. They expressed a clear desire for more autonomy and competence. (6)

Let’s cite one more college study, which linked helicopter parenting to Millennials’ neurotic tendencies, dependency on others, and ineffective coping skills. It stated that the implications of helicopter parenting’s negative effects include dysfunctional family environments, and Millennials’ stunted development. (7)

There are many similar studies that show a link between the over-involved parenting style and emotional and academic issues in college students. But—and this is a big caveat—most of these studies are small in scope. More importantly, many of these (especially the smaller ones) rely on self-reporting by students through questionnaires. Oftentimes the only ‘evidence’ researchers have for the over-parenting, is the students’ opinion. There have been developments towards a more scientific model of validating helicopter parenting, based on certain characteristics, but many studies don’t do this. And college students of course aren’t completely reliable in their answers, which is true for most of us by the way. Certainly many have heard of over-parenting and can manipulate their answers towards a certain outcome—the fact that they’re in college shows they have at least some intellectual skills.

As a side note: some researchers have attributed bad decision college students make (cheating, using drugs, negative sexual relationships) to a lack of decision-making skills due to over-parenting. That begs the question of these statistics are higher than they were before helicopter-parenting apparently became a ‘thing’—something I wasn’t able to determine at this point.

Again: How Big is the Problem?

Let’s assume these studies are correct in their conclusions, that over-parenting has negative effects on college students. The question that still needs to be answered is this one: how big is this problem. I have not been able to find any data as to how many college students have parents like that. Hypothetically speaking, if only 5% of the college students has helicopter parents, we’re still dealing with a relatively small problem. It may make for some sensational anecdotes and funny stories, but it’s not a ‘big issue’.

The many opinions on this topic, where educators in colleges and schools have shared some unbelievable personal experiences with parents, make us conclude the majority of parents is crossing boundaries. I’d like to see some statistics and numbers though!

There’s more research on the effects of over-parenting however beyond how college students do and we’ll show this in the next post. 

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1 thought on “The Effects of Helicopter Parenting On College Students

  1. […] what helicopter parenting is and what the causes are. In the second post we analyzed research on the effects of over-parenting on college students and in the third post we looked at some other evidence suggesting negative effects. In this post, […]

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