What Happens When the Kids of Helicopter Parents Go to College

July 31st 2015

Research suggests that helicopter parenting has not only a negative impact on children, but as those kids age, academically overbearing parents can create deep, psychological affects in their early adult years as well.

Former dean of Stanford University Julie Lythcott-Haims discusses the consequences of helicopter parenting in her new book, "How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success." In her recent Slate article, she discusses her time at Stanford, where she found that many helicopter parents who pushed their children to become overachievers continued micromanaging and pressuring their offspring in college. This hindered the students' independence significantly, and as Lythcott-Haims explained, this could be connected to emerging data on mental health and what author Bill Deresiewicz dubbed "excellent sheep" in his 2014 book "Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life."

“[For students] haunted their whole lives by a fear of failure—often, in the first instance, by their parents’ fear of failure,” Deresiewicz writes, “the cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential.”

What Deresiewicz describes as "excellent sheep," Lythcott-Haims calls "existential impotence." She explained that brilliant students were stunted by something inward, and that they were "resigned to the fact that these outwardly successful situations were their miserable lives."

"As dean, I saw a lack of intellectual and emotional freedom—this existential impotence—behind closed doors," Lythcott-Haims wrote. " I heard plenty of stories from college students who believed they had to study science (or medicine, or engineering), just as they’d had to play piano, and do community service for Africa, and, and, and. I talked with kids completely uninterested in the items on their own résumés. Some shrugged off any right to be bothered by their own lack of interest in what they were working on, saying, 'My parents know what’s best for me.'"

Lythcott-Haims cites 2013 statistics from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors that found nearly 100 percent of college counseling center directors reported a growing concern with the number of students with significant psychological problems. That same year, almost 100,000 college students participated in a American College Health Association survey and nearly 85 percent of participants reported feeling overwhelmed with what they had to do. More than 60 percent felt very sad, more than half felt overwhelming anxiety, and almost 10 percent reported seriously considering suicide. Looking at the data, Lythcott-Haims says parents who push their kids too hard might be worsening this mental health crisis.

While counseling at Stanford, Lythcott-Haims encountered a student whose father threatened he would divorce his wife if their daughter did not major in economics. It didn't end there. The young woman was forced to study at her uncle's place on the weekends, it took her seven years to graduate, and she had to report back to her dad regarding office hour visits with her economics professor.

"As parents, our intentions are sound—more than sound: We love our kids fiercely and want only the very best for them," she wrote. "Yet, having succumbed to a combination of safety fears, a college admissions arms race, and perhaps our own needy ego, our sense of what is 'best' for our kids is completely out of whack. We don’t want our kids to bonk their heads or have hurt feelings, but we’re willing to take real chances with their mental health?"

Helicopter parenting's impact on academic performance

As ATTN: reported in June, Brigham Young University's recent research shows that parental warmth, which is determined by the amount of time spent bonding with a child, does not counteract the consequences of helicopter parenting. A lack of warmth, however, worsens the effects of helicopter parenting, which can cause people to have lower self-esteem and engage in risky behaviors.

“From our past work, we thought there might be something positive about helicopter parenting under certain conditions, but we’re just not finding it,” study author Larry Nelson said in a release. "Overall, stepping in and doing for a child what the child developmentally should be doing for him or herself, is negative. Regardless of the form of control, it's harmful at this time period."

This research was a follow-up to 2012 findings that helicopter parenting causes a lack of academic engagement in kids. For this new research, the academics expected to find some positive effects of helicopter parenting without much luck.

Young people need breathing room to grow and learn

Frances Jensen, author of "The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults," told the Huffington Post in June that a person's teen years are important for brain development and that teenagers need to become independent to acquire skills that will be helpful in adulthood. When their parents don't allow for this growth, the kids suffer.

"[Teenagers] are developing experiences, learning from the experiences and creating synaptic pathways," Jensen said. "It’s a learning time. You have to learn from experience... I think parents should make sure they stay out of the day-to-day trial and error, because your kid is going to need to use that experience to learn when to take a risk and when not to take a risk."

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