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.