How Not to Be a Helicopter Parent to Your College Student

Whether your young adult is off to college for the first time this fall or is a returning student, “letting go” is an ongoing process for both parents and kids.

Hence the dilemma faced by parents of college students — where do you draw the line between supporting your child versus setting boundaries to encourage her growth toward independent adulthood?

As in: “I know I shouldn’t do too much for my child because she’s an adult now, heading off to college.” But also, “What if she needs me? When do I step in to help my young adult child? And when should I back off?”

What kinds of problems will your child face?

Going away to college will undoubtedly cause your child to go through many changes. She is likely living on her own for the first time, meeting new people daily and deciding how to balance her school work, social life, health, and extracurriculars. This heady stuff can be overwhelming for any young adult.

In the second, third, and fourth years of college, stress and anxiety may ratchet up. More significant decisions to be made include choosing a major, finding an internship, living off campus, applying for a job, looking into graduate school, and deciding what to do after college (and where).

Surely any parent’s natural instinct is to jump in and help solve problems.

But not all problems are the same. “Mom, can you send me quarters by FedEx so I can do my laundry?” Or, “my roommate has bronchitis, should I go to the health center?” Or, “I lost my student I.D., what do I do?” These are likely first-year-in-college, nonproblems that your adult kid can and should solve on her own.

How do you keep a balance?

It’s much trickier for parents to know what to do or say — or what not to do and not to say — about the bigger issues, the significant problems. Parents must find that delicate balance between their own concern for their child’s well-being and their child’s need for independence during these important transitional years to adulthood.

Some of the real problems that young adults have on campus are temporary, part of the typical developmental concerns that come with emerging adulthood. These stressful stages will pass in time. But other problems may be of a more serious, ongoing nature where prompt parental attention or intervention may be warranted.

With that intentionally fuzzy line in mind, let me suggest these rules as a guide:

1. Listen. Listen well.

You should be listening more than you speak. Don’t automatically jump into natural parental problem-solver mode. Just listen. And know that it is hard to do even for the least helicopter-ish of parents.

2. Discourage overcommunication.

If your high school daughter has been texting you five times a day, maybe texting once a day should be the new college norm. Your kid should not text you after every class, before every test, or to tell you what she is having for dinner. The bonds of intimacy should loosen so she has space to grow, but also stay intact so she can reach out when she is in trouble.

3. Let her figure things out.

Allow your child to figure out the solution to her own problems as much as you can. Let her do the brainstorming. Your child should be the one to go to the resident adviser with her roommate issue. She must be the one to make an appointment with the Office of Learning Services to discuss concerns about her study skills. You are now the sounding board, and she is now the problem solver.

4. Learn about campus resources ahead of time.

Be sure both you and your child learn about the college’s resources. Here are some things you should know in advance:

  • What supports does the college offer?
  • Who would you call in the Dean of Student Affairs Office if you needed to? And what could they tell you, since after your child turns 18 new privacy laws kick in?
  • What services does the health center provide?
  • How does the academic advising process work?
  • Does the mental health counseling center offer both therapy and medication, and are there limits to its services and hours?
  • What is the college’s policies on leaves of absence, tuition refunds, and part-time attendance?

5. Accept that you may not always know if and when there is a problem.

There may be times when parental involvement is warranted. But the catch is you may not know — or you may be the last to know — if and when your student is dealing with a more serious challenge.

Because of both legal and liability concerns, a college will not keep parents informed of their child’s well-being on campus. One key federal law parents should know about is FERPA (Federal Education Records Privacy Act), which gives your college student new privacy rights concerning her educational records once she turns 18 and is enrolled in an institute of higher education.

Since the definition of “educational records” under FERPA is very broad (grades, course schedule, disciplinary records, financial status, other related information), talk to your child before she enrolls in college about possibly obtaining her consent to a FERPA waiver. If you don’t get a waiver, you won’t, for example, be sent your child’s grades by the registrar’s office.

College kids are more likely to discuss their struggles with their friends than with their parents. All the more reason why parents should stay in touch, be open to listening to their problems, and, most importantly, be as nonjudgmental as possible in your responses.

6. Offer help if your child has mental health or substance abuse challenges.

If your child has a pre-existing mental health condition, try to stay in contact with her, of course, but also stay in touch with your child’s friends on campus or a nearby adult not bound by privacy restrictions, like a family friend. Peers and other adults may be able to alert you if things with your own child seem to be sliding downhill and she is reluctant to tell you.

If your child develops mental health or substance abuse problems for the first time while away at college, and you find out or are informed that challenges are occurring, do not panic. Most colleges and universities have resources in place. Encourage your child to seek help locally; there is no stigma for wanting to get well. If it doesn’t breaking any confidences, enlist your child’s friends as a support system. If campus counseling services are insufficient or inaccessible, it is OK for you to step in and find off-campus care, and help your child make arrangements to get that care on a regular basis.

If your child’s mental health struggle cannot be stabilized on campus, consider other options like taking time off, whether it’s for a few weeks, a semester, or an extended leave of absence. With your child’s consent, you can find resources for her in your hometown. If she comes home on mental health leave, help her set up a structure that accommodates her mental health care with volunteer work, a job, or a course at a local college. The relationship between your child and her mental health care provider will be a confidential one, but as a parent, you can always bring the provider concerns that you are worried she may not know of.

Remember that the boundaries of privacy and support evolve as your child matures and makes her way through her college years. Step back most of the time, step in when truly necessary, and always be there with nonjudgmental love.

Looking for more advice about starting college? Check out our page on the first year of college, where you can ask pressing questions and read advice from Noodle Experts like Nancy Wolf.