We’ve all heard the term “helicopter parents.”
The phrase refers to those over-attentive moms and dads who hover over their young children like hawks, trying to shield and protect them from each and every danger they may encounter.
Unfortunately, sometimes the hovering doesn’t stop in elementary, middle, or high school. Or – believe it or not — in college!
I’ve heard stories about students Skyping parents about selecting classes while standing in line to see the registrar. I’ve heard of parents calling administrators — even college presidents — to handle a problem on behalf of their son or daughter. Please! The college president is way too busy to worry about your child’s roommate issues (don’t laugh, this has actually happened).
As difficult as it may be, college is a time when parents need to let go and allow their children to grow independently — to enable them to become adults.
A mother bird raises her babies and then urges them to take wing once the time arrives. It can feel hard, but you have to have faith that you’ve done the best job you can raising your child. When the time is right, you’ve got to send her off to live, learn, and grow independently during her college years. It’s understandable that you still want to feel needed and included in this new experience, but it doesn’t do her any favors to have you hovering about and guiding her every decision in an effort to keep her from making mistakes.
Recent research suggests that this type of “over-parenting” can have negative implications later on when your child enters the workplace. The study shows that college students with heavily involved parents were less confident in their own abilities to accomplish goals, more dependent on others in an office setting, had poor coping strategies, and lacked both responsibility and conscientiousness.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to protect your child and keep her safe. In fact, it’s a big part of what makes you a good parent. But once she’s out of the house, it’s best to let her make her own mistakes and learn from them.
Acclimating to College Life
College is like nothing your child has ever experienced. The level of independence and the amount of responsibility thrust upon her can seem overwhelming at first. It may even send her running back home to mommy and daddy. This is all very natural.
One doesn’t become a successful college student overnight. It takes time. Up until this point, kids generally have someone (you) doing their laundry, making their meals, waking them up, keeping their schedule, and managing their money. Now they have to learn how to do all of these things on their own. And that’s not to mention studying, balancing school and a social life, or any of the other complicated and difficult things that are part of the college experience. It’s actually a good thing you’re not there.
“Individuals are greatly empowered when they face and overcome challenges all by themselves,” writes psychologist Megan Sutsko. “The college experience has traditionally served as a gateway for teenagers to explore independence and adulthood while still having the safety net of their parents’ support. It is important to loosen the ties enough so that this process can happen.”
Give them time; it usually takes at least a semester or so before they begin to feel really confident about being on their own. If you allow them the space they need to grow, you’ll be surprised how quickly they’ll become the independent adults you’ve raised them to be. To help you get used to this new arrangement, check out this excellent podcast interview with Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.
Staying Involved, But From a Distance
Does all of this mean you can’t have any part in your child’s college experience? Of course not.
You will always have the right and responsibility to provide support and guidance when it’s needed. That said, just understand when it’s the right time to step in and when you need to give her the space she needs to grow. Let your child know that you’re there for her, but make sure she’s aware of all the resources available on campus, too.
Services like student counseling or the college’s career center can provide valuable information on everything from scheduling classes to time management to preparation for professional interviews. Encourage your child to get involved on campus and to meet as many other students as possible. Doing so will help her see that others are going through the same challenges, and it will give her someone other than you to turn to should a problem arise.
College is a learning process in which kids enter feeling inexperienced and naive, and leave as confident, independent adults ready to begin their careers. Make sure you’re giving your child the room she needs to grow while letting her know you’re always there for her. Doing so will help her spread her wings and fly as she builds the life you’ve hoped she would.
C. Bradley-Geist Jill B. Olson-Buchanan Julie, (2014), Helicopter parents: an examination of the correlates of over-parenting of college students, Education + Training, Vol. 56 Iss 4 pp. 314 - 328.
College Parents of America. Ten parental habits that can negatively affect your college student.
Garland, S. (n.d.). Parents letting go of college students. Exquisite Minds.
Sutsko, M. (2014, November 19). Loosening the ties: Letting your kids “go” when it’s time for college. Rice Psychology.