Has helicopter parenting caused young adults to crash land?

mother and son holding hands on the beach

A strange sort of co-dependence took hold of a generation of parents and their children in the 1990s. This was the era when parents became far too intrinsically embedded in each and every activity of their offspring; monitoring, scheduling and protecting their kids’ every move from birth till college.

The term “helicopter parenting” was coined to describe overbearing, smothering parents that generated “bubble wrapped” kids. With the best of intentions, these parents only sought to protect their children from perceived harm. Much of this trepidation concerning the safety of their children could be attributed to sensationalized news stories that cause panic and fear among the parent population.

Mothers are hardwired to be problem solvers and injury soothers, but helicopter moms try to anticipate each and every possible hurdle in the child’s life. Taking extreme preemptive measures to ensure their children would not end up with a skinned knee or a poor grade, moms surveyed every possible scenario to detect potential dangers. Meanwhile, fathers got hyper-involved in the kids’ sports teams, shouting and bellowing from the sidelines and micro-managing and questioning a coach’s every move.

It would seem all this parental involvement did not net the desired result, which is healthy, happy and secure adults. A study from the University of Mary Washington and published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies is among the first to delve into the outcomes of over-parenting by zeroing in on the mental health of young adults who were raised by helicopter parents.

The author of the study, Holly Schiffrin, sought to quantify the psychological byproducts of helicopter parenting by going straight to the objects of all that parental attention: the kids. She enlisted 297 U.S. undergraduates aged 18 to 23 to survey them on their mothers’ parenting behaviors. The researchers decided to concentrate on mothers because there was more data available on a mother’s effects on children, although they plan to address the role of fathers in future studies.

The results of the study showed that college-aged kids who reported being helicopter-parented had higher levels of depression and use of antidepressant medications. Researchers suggested that these detrimental effects were caused by a sense that they are incompetent and had less autonomy, a view fostered by being micro-parented. In general, these students had a lower sense of satisfaction with life.

“It was really not feeling autonomous and not feeling competent that were associated with depression and lower life satisfaction,” said Schiffrin. “We think when parents are over-involved with their kids’ lives they are undermining their sense of competence, both by sending a message that says, ‘I think you can’t do it yourself,’ and robbing them of the opportunity to practice those skills.”

A common pitfall among helicopter parents is failing to adjust their behavior to the child’s increasing maturity, independence and competency levels as they age. There are a few different thoughts on why this happens. Some point out that by continuing to treat children as if they were perpetually five years old, the parent can deny their own aging process. Others attribute the inability to detach and let go to a hyper-vigilant determination for their child to not fail at anything, lest it be a poor reflection on themselves as parents. Some say by focusing so much attention on their prodigy, parents can fill the void in a lackluster marriage.

Both the Huffington Post and the Wall Street Journal have reported parents accompanying their adult-aged offspring to job interviews, and college admissions officials have reported parents attending student-only events. No wonder the term “emerging adulthood” was coined (in 2000 by psychologist Jeff Arnett) to describe the extended adolescence that delays adulthood. It is no surprise that kids are struggling to become fully adult when they haven’t been allowed to acquire the life tools needed to become autonomous, independent-thinking grown-ups.

The extreme parenting that pushes children to succeed can backfire. Research has shown that anxiety-driven parenting tactics not only compromise children’s sense of self and personal growth and mastery, but can convey an underlying critical attitude. Parents may praise their children when they meet their high expectations, but punish them with the silent treatment or withdrawal of affection if the child disappoints. The ever present threat of parental criticism can have such deleterious effects on a child’s sense of self-worth that, as children enter adulthood, they can be crippled with an overwhelming fear of failure.

White River Academy, places an emphasis on character development in adolescent males with behavioral issues, offering life skills classes and community service-oriented programs to instill qualities that lead to a productive and successful life post-recovery. For questions about White River Academy, please call 866-520-0905.

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