The negative effects of over-parenting on children are well documented. Research shows that it can lead to psychological distress, narcissism, poor adjustment, alcohol and drug use, and a host of other behavioral problems in young adults ages 18 to 25. Helicopter moms and dads hover over their children, taking care of tasks children could do themselves, such as cooking, cleaning, or paying bills—removing obstacles, solving problems, or overseeing every aspect of a child’s life. But why are some parents driven to overly focus on their kids?
In a new study, Professor Chris Segrin and his research team at Texas State University and the University of Nebraska sought to find out what is at the core of hovering parents. Segrin and his collaborators conducted two studies published together in the journal Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice.
In the first study, 302 parents of young adults were asked to rate a series of statements designed to measure their levels of engagement in over-parenting and their levels of perfectionism. In the second, the researchers surveyed 290 parent-young adult pairs. The young adults responded to statements designed to measure their perception of their parent's parenting style.
The findings from both studies confirmed that perfectionism is indeed associated with helicopter parenting. "Perfectionism is a psychological trait of wanting to be perfect, wanting success, wanting to have positive accolades that you can point to," said Segrin, head of the the University of Arizona Department of Communication in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Perfectionist parents may see their children's success as a reflection on them, Segrin said, and they may engage in over-parenting in an effort to achieve "perfect" results. "They want to live vicariously through their children's achievements. They want to see their children achieve because it makes them look good," he said. "I'm not saying they don't care about their children; of course they do. But they measure their self-worth by the success of their children. That's the yardstick that they use to measure their own success as a parent."
Perfectionism isn't the only characteristic that can lead to over-parenting. Previous research by Segrin showed there's also a link between over-parenting and its close cousin: anxious parenting. According to Segrin, anxious parents tend to worry and ruminate on bad things that could happen to their child, so they parent with risk aversion in mind. His previous work showed that parents who have many regrets in their own lives may engage in this type of parenting as they try to prevent their children from repeating similar mistakes.
Just because someone engages in anxious parenting doesn't mean they engage in over-parenting, but anxious parenting is "one of the ingredients in the over-parenting stew," Segrin said, adding that anxious parenting can sometimes lead to over-parenting.
For perfectionism-driven helicopter parents to change their ways, they first need to recognize their own value, independent of their children. "Parents need to learn to accept their children's own goals and give them the chance to explore," Segrin said. "Young adults need the room to go out and explore and find their own life and their own ambitions."
Segrin, C. et al. (2020). Overparenting is associated with perfectionism in parents of young adults. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 2020; 9 (3): 181 DOI: 10.1037/cfp0000143