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6 Tips for Parenting College Students

A helicopter parenting expert on the importance of giving college kids independence


Parenting a college student can be challenging. For years, experts drill into parents that being engaged and involved in children’s lives helps promote optimal child development. Yet, as kids go off to college, many parents are being told they’re too involved. They even get a special name: Helicopter Parents.

Understandably, these parents find themselves scratching their heads, asking, Aren’t I just doing what I was told was good for my child? As a parent, isn’t my responsibility to protect my child? Isn’t this what “good parents” do?

What Does the Research Say?

Helicopter parenting goes beyond just protection from harm, though; it’s getting involved in situations where it’s not necessary or appropriate. It’s doing things for your children that, developmentally, they should be able to do, or be learning to do, themselves. Helicopter parents hover over their child, micro-managing their youngster’s life so they can shield him or her from any stress, challenge or failure.

Examples of helicopter parenting at college include: Calling your son’s professor to ask why your child’s essay received a B when, clearly, it deserved an A. Calling the residence hall head because your daughter’s roommate plays music too loud in the evenings. Going with your college daughter to her job interview … and answering the questions for her. (Yes, these are real-life examples!)

Parents, it’s time to land that helicopter.

These behaviors can actually harm your children. The results from studies so far are consistent: College students of helicopter parents are less engaged in school, have lower academic achievement, display symptoms of anxiety and depression and suffer from lower self-esteem.

In my recent study published in Journal of Child and Families Studies, my colleagues and I surveyed 118 college students from two mid-size private universities in the southwestern United States. We found that female students who reported more helicopter parenting also reported lower psychological well-being. Similarly, when male students perceived their parents as not supporting their autonomy and independence, they reported more symptoms of depression and social anxiety.

Why is helicopter parenting harmful? College students are in a period of life called emerging adulthood; the developmental goal during this time is to become independent and autonomous. But when parents start doing things for their child, it deprives their son or daughter of the ability to learn and practice the skills needed to be independent and to gain the skills to be successful in adulthood. Helicopter parenting also inadvertently sends the message to your child that you don’t have confidence in his or her abilities.

6 Tips to Avoid Being a Helicopter Parent and Promote Independence

  1. Keep nurturing a warm, emotional bond. Having a warm relationship with your children and being engaged (by having consistent and open communication, asking questions about the day and knowing about their positive and negative life experiences) is great. Keep doing this! You can never have too much love and warmth in a relationship, no matter how old your children are. 
  2. Don’t compare yourself to other parents. Having friends who are in the same stage of parenting as you can be great for getting advice, ideas or support. But be careful not to compare your parenting to theirs. Every child is unique, with different strengths and weaknesses. Some parents need to be more or less involved in helping their child navigate the challenges of college, and what may work for your friend’s child may not work for yours. (Heck, even within your own family, what worked with your first-born might not work with your second child!) So, don’t take your cues on how involved to be from other parents. Take your cues from your child and do what is developmentally appropriate for him or her.
  3. Be involved, but adjust how and when you get involved. A common misconception is that to avoid being a helicopter parent, you need to be disengaged from your child’s life when he or she goes to college. Let’s refer back to Tip No. 1 — being involved and engaged in your child’s life is great! However, as your son or daughter gets older, shift how and when you’re directly involved. Before you go with your instinct to just do something for your child, ask yourself (and be honest): Is this a situation that requires my help? Or, would it just make me feel less anxious if I got involved? If your child is in imminent danger or in distress, by all means, step in and help. But if your college student is experiencing a normal daily hassle, let her or him handle this one.
  4. Coach and support your child, instead of doing things for him or her. Not all college students will be naturally skilled at handling challenging and stressful events, especially since some of these situations may be new to them. Instead of jumping in and solving problems on their behalf, offer support and coach them so that they can handle the situation on their own. It’s perfectly OK to listen to children vent and then offer encouragement and brainstorm solutions with them. Are they having a problem in class? Have them role-play asking their professor for an extension on a paper instead of calling the professor yourself. By coaching your child, instead of doing things for him or her, you can teach the skills needed so the next time these situations arise, your son or daughter has the tools and resources to handle them.
  5. Accept that your child will experience challenging situations and, sometimes, failures. You can’t protect your child from every challenging experience at college, and it’s OK for your son or daughter to experience small failures and stress — especially when the stakes aren’t high. This is part of life. Experiencing challenges, stress and failure offers the chance to develop and practice coping skills and build resiliency.
  6. Think about what’s best for your child in the long-term. Helicopter parenting might work in the short-term, by shielding your child from this negative experience or that stressful event. But it doesn’t protect your child in the long-term. Try to teach how to problem-solve, use the resources available and be a self-advocate in order to better take on life’s challenges. One of the best things you can do for your children to set them up for success as adults is to instill a sense of autonomy and self-confidence in them.
By Chrystyna D. Kouros
Chrystyna D. Kouros, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

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