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Are You Still Helicopter Parenting Your Children? Why You Should Stop

How to know when involvement and support has gone too far

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​If you’ve ever contacted a professor about a grade on your college student’s behalf or tracked their movements from afar or accompanied your teen or older child to a job interview, you just might be a helicopter parent.

Anita Griffith, 54, of San Diego, knows she is. The mother of 21-year-old boy-girl twins, Griffith admits to being a full-on helicopter parent for both during their early years. But she stayed overly involved in her son’s life through high school and beyond. “My husband and I feel he needs it,” she says.

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Her son is now a junior at an out-of-state college, and Griffith has remained involved. The whole family uses the Find My Friends app, so Griffith can see her son’s location and avoid calling him when he’s in class or at work. She periodically checks to see if he’s missed class assignments and — with her son’s permission — has access to his email to make sure he stays on top of important tasks. Her communication and oversight, she says, is “how I cope with my anxiety about him.”

The term “helicopter parent,” which began circulating widely in the U.S. in the 1980s, is used to describe a parent’s hovering involvement in a child’s schoolwork and achievement. Studies have been mixed over whether such intense parental involvement in the life of an older teen or adult child life is helpful or harmful. Some researchers have reported that children with helicopter parents may feel more depressed or anxious, but that in some cases, such support can be beneficial. Another study found that helicopter parents may struggle themselves because they feel their kids aren’t faring well in life.

Griffith says she wishes she had pushed her son to do more on his own at a younger age, instead of doing so much for him. Because of that, she feels “he’s delayed in doing some of these things and making certain decisions on his own.”

Still, she says, her son is making progress as he matures. “Now, though, rather than asking me to do it, he’s asking me to figure out a plan to do it,” she says. ​

Letting children go

While many parents ease up on the hovering during high school, others can’t let go. Experts say autonomy-granting from parent to child is essential to a child’s well-being. Parents, they say, should extend love and support but not tell adult children what to do. And although the helicopter relationship may benefit both for a while — something that was highlighted when the pandemic hit and many adult children moved home — loosening the ties during adulthood is likely to strengthen them in the long term.

“If the child is able to do it and the parent swoops in and does it for them — now it’s helicopter parenting,” says Larry Nelson, a professor of human development at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. “A young adult in college should be solving their roommate problems and interviewing for a job. That’s what a parent shouldn’t be doing at that age.”

Helicopter parents haven’t learned there’s a “regular process of letting your children go,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist. “I have friends who are college professors who have received emails and phone calls from parents of their students,” she says. “I have heard from colleagues whose companies are hiring and received calls or emails from the parent of an applicant.” ​

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Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco Bay Area psychologist who has written books about family estrangement, says a helicopter parent may unintentionally cause harm. “It can look like vote of no-confidence from the perspective of the adult child. They may take a parent’s well-meaning wisdom in thinking their child doesn’t have the judgment to make these decisions for themselves, which can damage the relationship,” says Coleman, author of the 2021 book Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict. While he says it’s not unusual for parents today to provide adult children with support, including financial help, the key is whether the adult child wants it.

“Estrangement can be an attempt to establish a boundary with a parent that’s overly anxious or involved,” he says. “Sometimes children do get too much of us and need more boundaries and separation.” ​

Pandemic parenting

When the pandemic hit two years ago, many adult children who were living independently moved back to their parents’ home during lockdown. In some cases, they brought partners and their own children. Parents assumed the old mindset of wanting to take care of the child, and the adult child may have enjoyed being cared for by parents again, Lombardo says.

“We don’t have a practice of renegotiating those roles, and the pandemic stuck us back in those roles without any rituals or transitions to help us negotiate the fact that our kids are now fully functioning adults,” says Brent Roberts, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Too much intrusive parenting can be harmful and contribute to depression, anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders in an adult child. A study of more than 20,000 college students over 32 years, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, linked the students’ rising drive toward perfectionism to parental expectations and criticism. The study, published in March, describes the “emergence of time-intensive, demanding and controlling parenting” as a recognition of just how immersed parents have come in their children’s lives.

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However, an earlier study, “Helicopter Parents and Landing Pad Kids,” published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, received attention for finding upsides to parental support. “Despite popular conceptions that intense parental support prevents grown children from launching successfully, the results of this study suggest the opposite conclusion. For grown children, receiving intense support was associated with beneficial adjustment,” the study found.

Forms of support include emotional, practical, socializing, advice, financial and listening to them talk about daily events several times a week. When considering all of their grown children, “more than one-quarter of parents provided such intense support to at least one grown child,” said the study.

Still, for parents, all was not good. “Parents who reported that their children needed more support than others of similar age also reported poorer life satisfaction. ... Parents also fare worse when they believe their grown children are doing poorly,” the study noted.

Coleman says parents who witness a child struggling — such as experiencing homelessness, mental illness or suicidal tendencies — do need to be more involved to help the adult child find a more stable situation, he says.

As for Griffith, she posted about being a helicopter mom this spring on a private Facebook group for parents of college students. She said the fact that her son knew he could call on her for help “paid off in a good way” after his class registration date had been changed to 6 a.m. after spring break. “He’s not feeling well, and needed help. We did a Zoom and figured things out,” she wrote. “Some of his required courses changed names & he didn’t have the bandwidth to figure it out alone.”​

They got it done together, she says. But since her son didn’t need to be up until later in the morning, Griffith volunteered to get up early and push that submit button for him. She said she got joy out of letting her son sleep in. “He’s so grateful, and it makes my heart happy to be able to do this for him,” she wrote in her Facebook post.

She knows her son is on a path toward greater independence. “As he’s starting to show that he can do more things and is more proactive in asking for advice when he needs it, I feel more comfortable backing off. He’s going to have to figure it out,” Griffith concludes. “I can’t get him a job.”