Helping or hovering? When ‘helicopter parenting’ backfires

“Parents have become constantly more involved in their children’s lives than they were a decade or two ago,” says Nelson, a professor of sociology at Middlebury College, a top liberal arts college in Vermont.

There was a push, especially among educated working professionals, to provide youngsters with every opportunity to succeed, from homework tutors and lacrosse camps at age 8 to college application essay assistance at age 18, the experts say. Parents became fierce advocates for their children, intervening with teachers, coaches — even employers.

The problem with all that help, says Segrin, is that when it’s overdone, it keeps children from developing their own age-appropriate strengths and skills.

“When we do not give the child the freedom to try on his or her own and maybe fail on his own, he doesn’t develop the competency that children who fail learn,” he says.

Segrin’s latest papers relied on interviews with more than 1,000 college-age students and their parents from across the nation. They found that many of the young adult kids are in touch with their parents constantly, with nearly a quarter communicating by text, phone or other means several times every day and another 22 percent reaching out once a day.

“There’s this endless contact with parents,” says Segrin, who doesn’t have children. “I don’t think it’s just calling to socialize. A lot of it is, ‘How do I?’ ‘Will you?’ ‘Can you?’ They are still quite reliant on their parents.”

The studies showed that parents who felt more anxiety about their children and more regret about their own missed goals led to greater overparenting. At the same time, they found that kids who were overparented were more likely be anxious and narcissistic and to lack coping skills.

That makes sense to Elizabeth May, 22, a recent University of Arizona graduate who participated in Segrin’s research with her mom, Suzanne May, 55. She says her parents were not the helicopter type, but she knows of plenty who were.

In one instance, the house where May lived with roommates was broken into and things were stolen. May called the landlord to ask that an alarm system be installed, but before she could finish the negotiations, her roommate’s mother rushed in and demanded action.

“I felt like it kind of undermined my communication with our landlord,” she says. “I feel like we could have gotten it done ourselves.”

Separating harmful overparenting from appropriate parenting isn’t easy.

“There’s no sure 100-percent fault-free parenting guidebook,” observes Suzanne May.

In this culture, helicopter parenting is almost contagious, observes Nelson, the Middlebury College professor, with parents vying with each other to prove how engaged and attentive they are.

It would be better, suggests Segrin, for parents to put that energy into helping children — especially late adolescents and young adults — learn to handle problems and setbacks on their own

That can be challenging because different kids can handle responsibility at different ages, experts say. But it starts with parents actively choosing to let children experience the consequences of their actions instead of rushing to intervene. Suzanne May, an elementary school teacher who left the workforce while she raised her three kids, recalls a time when one child forgot crucial homework and called to ask May to bring it to school.

“I told her, ‘No, it’s your responsibility. I’m not at your disposal to say, ‘Hey, Mom, I forgot this,’” May says. That was a hard stance at the time, but her daughter learned that she needed to remember her work.

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