The Spring emphasis on college acceptances and rejections can’t help but have parents of young children project to the future. Intuitively, it makes sense to think that higher parental involvement in a child’s day-to-day life will lay the groundwork for a capable, independent young adult. For parents that cling to this perception, college prep starts in toddlerhood and elementary school—long before the SAT prep.

Over the past few decades, it seems that more and more parents will do almost anything to guarantee their young child will succeed, going as far as hovering to ensure meeting or exceeding academic benchmarks or intervening in the case of a problem—large or small.

Helicoptered Kids Go to College Unprepared

Fast forward: Your child is now 18 or so and enrolled in college. He has a disagreement with his dorm roommate or a professor gives him a poor grade. In both instances, you’re the one who gets the distressing phone call and the one who is expected to solve the problem as you have always done.

A new University of Mary Washington study, “Helping or Hovering? The Effects of Helicopter Parenting on College Students’ Well-Being,” offers hard evidence that seemingly beneficial “helicopter parenting” is detrimental toa child later in life, and correlates with low levels of performance and high levels of anxiety and depression once your child goes to college. Instead of entering the real world adequately prepared, helicoptered children have increased difficulty making choices or solving problems without their parents.

How Hovering Backfires

When their children start showing signs of problems in college or the real world, parents who hovered ask, “What happened?” They thought they were being ideal parents by keeping on top of their children, double checking homework, or (helping) writing engaging college essays. To these overeager parents, their control and constant monitoring only prevented failing in the short term. Over time hovering thwarts children’s independence and competency. 

The University of Mary Washington researchers surveyed a group of 297 college undergraduates in the university’s psychology department. The participants had to answer yes or no to statements such as “My mother manages my bank account,” “My mother had a large influence on where I chose to go to college,” “If I were to receive a low grade that I felt was unfair, my mother would call the professor.”

The study found, “Students who reported having over-controllingparents reported significantly higher levels of depression andless satisfaction with life. Furthermore, the negative effects ofhelicopter parenting on college students’ well-being werelargely explained by the perceived violation of students’ basicpsychological needs for autonomy and competence.”

What parents believe helps their children early on actually prevents them from developing a sense of independence by the time they reach college. In some cases, fear builds that they don’t measure up and hence, they stop trying — something I mentioned in a When Does Mothering Become Smothering: Patricia Somers, an associate professor of education at the University of Texas-Austin estimated that 60 to 70 percent of parents use some type of helicopter parenting. "Although students with involved parents reported higher levels of engagement, deep learning and greater educational gains, they had significantly lower grades.”

There are many possible causes for the rise in helicopter parenting. In part, the cost of college and society’s competitive academic environment fuel the desire to see our child shine. According to Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of Millennials Go to College, Generation X parents are more involved and start earlier—in elementary school—than their Boomer parents were. They don’t allow their children to fail and as a result, as college students, they cannot deal with disappointment. On top of that, many helicoptered kids can’t make choices without checking in with their parents.

Tips to Prepare Young Children for College

Parents of young children have the opportunity to ensure their children have successful higher education experiences. Here, five suggestions for stepping back and allowing children to thrive on their own:

* Recognize early that your child is a separate being who will be on his or her own eventually.

* Offer reasonable choices early on, allowing your child to have certain freedoms, but within certain parameters. For example: “I have a can of tuna here. Would you like tuna salad without bread or a tuna sandwich?”

* Allow your child to make his own decisions about which sports, activities, and other extracurricular activities to participate in.

* When not an issue of safety, let her settle her own disputes.

* Understand the difference between being involved and supportive and taking charge. Stop yourself when you lean toward the latter.

Encouraging your child to think for him- or herself, solve problems independently, and face disappointments and failures are all powerful tools for raising a capable, well-adjusted young adult who can meet the pressures and ups and downs of college life.

Photo credit:


Howe, Neil, and Strauss, William. Millennials Go to College: Strategies for a New Generation on Campus : Recruiting and Admissions, Campus Life, and the Classroom. Great Falls, VA: LifeCourse Associates, 2007.

Newman, Susan. "When Does Mothering Become Smothering?: Part 1." Psychology Today. 23 Apr. 2009. and

Schiffrin, Holly H. et al. “Helping or Hovering? The Effects of Helicopter Parenting on College Students’ Well-Being.” The Journal of Child and Family Studies, 9 Feb. 2013.

Somers, Patricia, and Settle, J. "The Helicopter Parent, Part One: Research Toward a Typology." College and University 86.1 (2010): 18-27. 

Copyright 2013 by Susan Newman

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