SALT LAKE CITY — In the spring of 2018, a young woman from New York earned admission to a university in the Midwest, thousands of miles from home.
Her parents wanted to make sure she had everything she’d need. The must-haves included a tracking app on her phone.
Their worries were twofold: their daughter’s safety in a strange place was paramount, but they also didn’t want her skipping class or playing too much at the expense of getting the education they were buying her.
The tracking worked. When the student’s classes were canceled one day and she went to a park, it took her father mere minutes to ask where she was and why. The Deseret News agreed not to use her name.
That story is no surprise to Frank Fincham, a professor at Florida State University and director of the school’s Family Institute, whose research includes how helicoptering makes it harder for young people to become confident, able adults.
In a just-released study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, Fincham and his colleagues found parents who hover over young adults destroy their self-confidence and self-control and may even drive students to drop out.
Parent as helo
Helicopter parents go overboard with monitoring, controlling and “helping” their kids, often removing obstacles instead of helping them learn skills to do it themselves.
That version of protecting children can actually create obstacles and add risks, Fincham said. And while folks often think of parents hovering over younger kids, some hover over young adults, as well.
The Washington Post recently reported on a popular app called Life360 that parents are having older teens and college students install on their cell phones so they can be tracked, “from where they are to how fast they are driving — and as such, it is either a safety precaution or a tattletale,” the article said.
Some students don’t mind; others do. The story’s filled with almost-funny stories of overreach. But experts warn that not letting children grow up is not humorous.
“Well-meaning parents who do for their children what the children can do for themselves creates significant damage,” said neuropsychotherapist Britt Frank of Mission, Kansas. “Infantilization, which is when parents treat capable, grown children as helpless babies, has a number of devastating effects. Adult children who have overprotective parents can develop depression, anxiety disorders, struggle in relationships and experience difficulty with self-esteem and self-confidence. While the damage may be unintentional, the impact is undeniable.”
Overprotecting often springs from fear and anxiety, so parents have to work on self-control, said Frank. “Improving our self-regulation allows us to respond rather than react and models these skills for our children. That’s a much bigger gift to our children than running their lives,” she said.
The developmental task of college-age students is establishing independence, Fincham said, which includes making mistakes — something overprotective parents try to prevent. Young people also learn from feelings of failure, but that’s another helicopter parent taboo.
Fincham thinks parents should ask themselves how long they think they’ll live. “Because you can’t do this for your child all their life. Sooner or later you are not going to have influence. So get over it.”
Parenting coach Lisa Howe, of San Diego, sees overprotection as a pathway to dependence, not the independence adulthood should be. Because those parents try to make sure their kids don’t encounter any problems, the children do not grow up knowing how to solve problems. They are unprepared for inevitable challenges.
Fincham’s new research focuses on how hovering stops kids from developing self-control. College-age students may feel burned out, worn down by exhaustion from school work, cynicism toward education and feelings of inadequacy.
“Burnout is a response to ongoing stress that is important because it saps the student’s energy, reduces their productivity and leaves them with a diminished sense of accomplishment,” he said in a release about the study. “They feel increasingly helpless, hopeless and resentful, exerting less effort on their studies, which leads to lower grades. In come cases, students end up dropping out of college.”
The Florida researchers found moms may be more prone to over-parenting, but the results are especially bad when dad does it, because the study says it violates the “child’s expectations of the typical fathering role.“ What isn’t clear is whether self-control drops and burnout increases when dad’s over-involved, or if those are why he becomes over-involved.
Don’t stop completely
Sometimes the choice is not just do it or don’t when it comes to being too protective, said Dr. Irene Little, a family therapist who wrote “The Book on Addiction” and runs Access Counseling Group in Frisco, Texas.
While a parent’s goal should be to relinquish control as children transition to independent, responsible adulthood, some children require more help, such as in families challenged by substance abuse, she said. In those families, young adults “are typically behind developmentally when addressing issues of maturity, responsibility and planning ahead.” They may need more accountability, a process she likens to “bowling with bumpers.”
“I think there is a place for accountability in all young adults’ lives, especially if the parent is still financially responsible for that child,” she said.
When a parent wants an adult child to make decisions based on “what the parent would have done if he could have a ‘do over,’” that’s inappropriate control. But a child who mismanages money and repeatedly needs parents to provide more should expect to have finances monitored. And it’s not unreasonable for parents to track driving when a young adult repeatedly gets speeding tickets in the car they provide and for which they cover expenses, she said.
What’s a kid to do?
Washington, D.C,-based Inside Higher Ed says colleges have long seen the impact of parental overreach — to the point that some have separate orientations to encourage parents to let students have some independence. When the Deseret News asked colleges about helicopter parents clear back in 2012, there were tales of parents bullying professors for grades and trying to help kids find a class from 3,000 miles away. Fincham said parents even get involved with students’ library fines.
This might soften the blow for parents struggling to loosen their grip: A study by BYU last year in Emerging Adulthood found what drives the hovering makes a difference in how the child is affected. Trying to control the young adult’s actions and run his life is more harmful than being warm, but hovering to protect him.
Either way, though, young adults must run their own lives at some point, and that takes practice. Fincham said the milestones that occur during the age and developmental stage that surrounds college provide a dry run for most of life, when they will become responsible for jobs and dealing with bureaucracy and other challenges. There’s legal incentive, too. Someone who’s 18 is an adult. You can’t get their medical records or school records without their permission. It’s a good time to fall back unless asked for help.
“We all want them to be successful, but we can’t ensure their success,” Fincham said. “You have got to have faith in the foundation you laid down for them as a child and that they will act in accordance with the values you instilled in them.”
And that student at the Midwestern school? She reportedly has two phones now. She makes sure the one is always where she’s expected to be.