The independence of young American adults just took a great leap backward. It was precipitated by the advance of their parents into new territory, a province once deemed innocuous enough for their offspring to navigate by themselves—getting into graduate school.
Now parents of 25-year-olds are only too eager to call graduate admissions officers and sing the virtues of their "children" or show up uninvited for campus visits intended for prospective students. Think of it as college displacement.
Earlier this week, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that "Parents Now Get Themselves Involved in Graduate Admissions, Too." The relentless violation of parental boundaries is most intense at business and law schools, professional domains where, back in the good old days of, say, 1990, demonstrations of self-motivation and self-reliance by prospective students could be considered a plus.
Adults, of course, rationalize their intrusive behavior by pointing out that they're the ones paying the bills, so they are entitled to know what's going on with their adult children. But commandeer the process? The money rationale rings awfully hollow. Parents have long paid the way for their offspring, usually with the clear aim of seeing that the kiddies acquire the knowledge and skills that support independence. Now, parents counter, costs are so great that schooling is an investment, as if some magical amount of money trips a switch in their brain that says it's OK for them to rob their kids of any degree of self-sufficiency.
Even if parents don't know where to draw a line, colleges should. They are, after all, in the business of promoting the development of young adults. Instead, they see an opportunity for their own survival, and some are going so far as to actually cultivate parental invasiveness. So many parents now show up for campus visits on admitted-student days that the University of Texas law school in Austin has quadrupled the number of such days it holds. An administrator at another graduate school advises that parents be looked on not as overzealous but as trusted partners and "benefactors," and that wooing parents can be the pipeline to more applicants.
"It's so sad," observes psychologist Michael Ungar, who heads the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University and is a fellow PT blogger. "The point of parenting should be to grow a child who is capable of taking on adult tasks. I can fully understand coaching a child on how to fill in applications and how to deal with admissions officers. But doing that for the child is misguided and short-sighted. This is not a strategy for long-term well-being. It is always better to empower children to make good choices for themselves rather than having them remain dependent on parents to sort out problems for them."
The real motivations of parents are probably multiple. Without question, they are anxious about the future success of their kids and think that clearing every path for them, including taking over tasks, will smooth the way to achievement. Many parents want to continue the kinds of connection they had when their kids were younger; it feeds the illusion that the adults aren't aging after all, and it keeps the adults from having to carve new roles for their own post-parenting lives. There are studies showing that some parents are especially needy emotionally, expecting their children to supply the closeness missing from their marriages or their own social life. However you slice it, parents are putting their own emotional needs ahead of the developmental needs of their children.
The ultimate outcome of such behavior is not good. Only a few studies have examined the effects of helicopter parenting. It is a relatively new cultural phenomenon, at least on a large scale (there have always been overbearing parents, but they were a rarity, and we used to laugh at them). It takes time to realize that something fundamental in parenting has shifted and time for scientists to suspect that it may cause problems, and more time for them to pinpoint and define the elements of intrusive parenting so that they can then study its effects. That is just now happening. Leading the charge is Chris Segrin of the University of Arizona, along with Michelle Givertz of Cal State at Chico and Neil Montgomery of Keene State College.
"The over part of overparenting," the researchers observe in a recent study, "is a reference to excessive levels of involvement, control, and problem-solving dispatched seeming in the service of the child's well-being." The big surprise of one of their recent studies overturns the conventional wisdom that parents always act with the good intentions and positive regard for a child's well-being.
Au contraire, the researchers find, the inappropriate, anxiety-driven parenting tactics not only compromise children's autonomy, mastery, and personal growth, they often reflect a critical attitude by parents, who praise their children when they do well but withdraw affection, subtly or overtly, when they don't bring home that A. It's known in the psych biz as "parental conditional regard." At least that's how children perceive it. And that's what matters: The threat of criticism has corrosive effects on attitudes toward parents and self-development and contaminates relationship with others. "Emotional overinvolvement and criticism often go hand in hand in family relationships," explain the researchers.
This is just the beginning. Now that there are validated criteria defining overparenting, other researchers can study its effects. In the meantime, the latest study by Chris Segrin and colleagues shows that overparenting young adults breeds narcissism and poor coping skills. And having ineffective coping skills amplifies anxiety and stress.
To say that the new studies are significant is an understatement. They demonstrate how those who mean only the best for their kids can wind up bringing out the worst in them.