The Myth of the Helicopter Parent
Indulgent parents of young adults may actually promote their development
Posted Feb 23, 2013
So-called “helicopter parents” are roundly criticized by everyone from teachers to media experts for smothering them with too much loving. If you want to “land your kids in therapy,” according to psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb writing in Atlantic Magazine, then by all means give them everything under the sun. If you want them to become productive members of society with reasonably normal lives, then keep the hugs and kisses to a minimum and even deny them things once in a while. “Well-meaning parents can ruin their children,” so the claim goes.
These observations led University of Texas psychologist Karen Fingerman and her colleagues (2012) to put the claims to the empirical test. They believed that today’s children, especially when they’re young adults, need more support than ever from their parents—ranging from advice to financial help. Today’s young adults don’t necessarily expect support from parent. Given the stretching out of adolescence, and particularly “emerging adulthood” (ages 18-29; Arnett, 2000), such expectations, if not hope, are not out of the question. Parents today may worry that they’re providing more help than they “should” based on the social norms of their own youth. Therefore, they may fear violating social norms for parental support. On the other hand, research based on the Longitudinal Study of Generations (Byers et al, 2008) suggests that parents of young adults report fewer depressive symptoms when they are heavily involved with their kids. Providing tangible and emotional support helps people feel that they are part of the lives of their children by making them feel they “matter.”
So which will it be? Will indulgent parents hurt their children- and themselves? Or will helicoptering young adult children benefit all concerned? Fingerman and team had at their disposal a sample of 399 parents (reporting on 886 children) and 592 children (reporting on 1158 parents) living in the greater Philadelphia area who completed a computer-assisted telephone interview. They were asked questions from the Intergenerational Support Index, a measure in which parents and children indicate the extent to which parents provide support ranging from advice and listening to financial and practical help. Both parents and children rated the intensity of support parents provided: “too little” to “more than you would like” with the middle point being “about right.” This was the measure of intense support. Children answered questions about their own adjustment and life satisfaction, and parents rated their life satisfaction as well.
The children ranged in age from 19 to 41 years old, with a mean of 24. They lived from 0 to 5,000 miles away from their parents, with an average distance of 172 miles. 30% of them actually lived with their parents, 24% had children of their own, and 35% were full-time students.
A substantial number of children (about one fifth) reported that their parents in fact provided them with intense support but more felt this came from their mothers (27%) than from their fathers (15%). These numbers corresponded closely to what parents said about the support they felt they provided. In fact, parents and children were remarkably consistent in reporting the areas of their relationship in which parents provided intense support. Parents provided the most support in the emotional areas that included listening, emotional help, and advice; and less in the areas of practical, financial, and socializing. However, parents did not provide support equally to all of their children. About 30% of parents provided support to only one child (for those who had more than one child). Those children most likely to receive support tended to be younger, to live with their parents, or to have children of their own, and mothers were more likely than fathers to provide intense support.
How did these helicoptered children fare? According to the findings presented by Fingerman and her group, the children whose parents provided them with intense support experienced better outcomes. Helicoptered children actually had higher life satisfaction and more clearly defined goals. However, helicoptering parents had many self-doubts as indicated by their lower life satisfaction.
Helicopter parenting, at least for grown children, seems to have its benefits. Parents who are involved and supportive across a wide range of areas produce young adult children who have a clearer sense of self and are more satisfied with their lives. However, parents who felt that their children need too much support were themselves lower in life satisfaction.
Parental support to grown children isn’t a one-size-fits all affair. The adult children who seemed to benefit the most from the involvement of their parents in their lives tended to be younger, lived with their parents, and had children of their own. It is possible that the reason they found this support so helpful was that they were in a life stage when the continued help of their parents could ease their adjustment into adulthood. Parents and children characterized by these intense support bonds may be feeling some pangs of guilty pleasure. They enjoy their relationship and the children seem to do well as a result. However, because they hear so much in the media about the dangers of over-involved parents, they feel that there’s something wrong with them for being in this type of relationship.
You might be thinking, and you’d be right, that as a correlational study, we can’t conclude that intense parenting causes better outcomes in grown children. Perhaps parents provide more intense support for children who they seem as “worthy” of investment. Furthermore, parents who are dissatisfied with their lives may also rate their children as less successful or needier. It’s also possible that parents and children who have better relationships feel more satisfied with their lives in general and may even be mentally healthier.
Nevertheless, the findings lead to a new understanding of parent-child support in the years of emerging adulthood. For parents, having your 20-something (or even 30-something) kids depend on you for everything from advice to a little financial help now and then, doesn’t mean you’ve failed. For grown children, you don’t have break yourself off entirely from your parents in order to be considered successful or mature.
Another piece of good news from this study is that there are many ways for parents and children to stay connected. Even if you don’t live with or near your family, email, Facebook, and other social media can allow you to provide support at many levels. To be a successful helicopter parent, just listening can help your kids navigate the sometimes rocky years of early adulthood. And kids, it’s not a bad idea to listen to your parents. It may be good for your mental health!
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55, 469 – 480. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.55.5.469
Byers, A. L., Levy, B. R., Allore, H. G., Bruce, M. L., & Kasl, S. V. (2008). When parents matter to their adult children: Filial reliance associated with parents’ depressive symptoms. Journals of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Scienceand Social Sciences, 63, P33 – P40.
Fingerman, K. L., Cheng, Y. P., Wesselmann, E. D., Zarit, S., Furstenberg, F., & Birditt, K. S. (2012). Helicopter parents and landing pad kids: Intense parental support of grown children. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 880-896.