The Hidden Costs of Overparenting

Raising healthy children in the media age

Posted May 15, 2015

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Too many college students are anxious and insecure, lacking the confidence to declare their own majors, plan their schedules, or handle assignments on their own (American College Health Association, 2008). Believing that outside forces control their lives, today’s college students have a more external locus of control than 80% of their peers in the 1960s and 70s (Twenge, Zhang, & Im, 2004).

Locus of control (LOC) reveals how we relate to the world. With an internal LOC, we believe our efforts and actions make a difference. Students with an internal LOC get better grades, cope effectively with stress, and are mentally and physically healthier, while those with an external LOC feel that powerful others or a quirk of fate controls their lives (Twenge et al., 2004). Feeling helpless and dependent upon external authorities, these students have poorer health and higher levels of anxiety and depression (Burger, 1984; Chorpita, 2001, Peterson, 1979; Peterson & Stunkard, 1989; Twenge, 2000; Twenge et al, 2004).

What's responsible for this unhealthy trend? Two possibilities are overcontrolling parents and electronic communication.

Since the 1990s, we have witnessed the rise of “helicopter parents,” who hover over their children, inhibiting their natural urge to explore the world. My research (Dreher, Feldman, & Numan, 2014) has revealed that college students who’ve grown up with controlling parents have significantly higher external LOC and lower emotional maturity, hope, and optimism. Not a healthy combination.

Advances in communication technology have produced an “electronic tether” that links

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college students to their parents on a daily basis (Hofer, Souder, Kennedy, Fullman, & Hurd, 2009). Students bring cell phones in to advising appointments to ask “Mom” or “Dad” what courses they should take. Parents monitor their students’ assignments on their syllabi and even write their papers, sending them along in e-mail attachments (Hofer et al, 2009). Insecure students seek instant “answers” on the Internet, often downloading texts and committing plagiarism. Electronic access to external authorities and easy answers does not reinforce students for thinking for themselves, for making their own decisions—vital skills needed for success not only in college but as adult citizens in a complex world.

To reverse this unhealthy trend, Gloria DeGaetano, founder and CEO of the Parent Coaching Institute and author of Parenting Well in a Media Age, advises parents to limit their children’s screen time while encouraging them to explore, follow their natural curiosity, develop their inner lives and interpersonal skills, and cultivate their creative imagination. She emphasizes the importance of a loving parent-child bond coupled with reading, physical exercise, unstructured time, and cooperative play to support children’s growth in autonomy and self-reliance.


American College Health Association. (2008). American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment Spring 2007 reference group data report (abridged). (ACHA-NCHA). Journal of American College Health, 56, 469-480.

Burger, J. M (1984). Desire for control, locus of control, and proneness to depression. Journal of Personality, 52, 71-88.

Chorpita, B. F. (2001). Control and the development of negative emotion. In. M. W. Vasey & M. R. Dadds (Eds.), The developmental psychopathology of anxiety (pp. 112-142). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

DeGaetano, G. (2004). Parenting Well in a Media Age. Fawnskin, CA: Personhood Press. For more about DeGaetano’s work and the Parent Coaching Institute, see and

Dreher, D. E., Feldman, D. B., & Numan, R. (2014). Controlling parents survey: Measuring the influence of parental control on personal development in college students. College Student Affairs Journal, 32, 97-111.

Hofer, B. K., Souder, C, Kennedy, E. K., Fullman, N, & Hurd, K. (2009). The ‘electronic tether’: Communication and parental monitoring during the college years. In M. K. Nelson & A. I. Garey (Eds.), Who’s watching: Daily practices of surveillance among contemporary families (pp. 277-294). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

Peterson, C. (1979). Uncontrollability and self-blame in depression: Investigation of the paradox in a college population. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 88, 620-624.

Peterson, C. & Stunkard, A. J. (1989). Personal control and health promotion. Social Science & Medicine, 28, 819-828.

Twenge, J. M. (2000). The age of anxiety? Birth cohort change in anxiety and neuroticism, 1952-1993. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 1007-1021.

Twenge, J. M., Zhang, L., & Im, C. (2004). It’s beyond my control: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of increasing externality in locus of control, 1960-2002. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 308-319.


Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling. Visit her web site at