June 4, 2015
By Lois M. Collins
Parents who hover over their kids do more harm than good, even when the relationship is warm and loving, according to BYU research that examined whether getting along well reduces the damage done by helicopter parenting.
It doesn’t, although damage is even greater when that warmth is absent from the relationship, according to the study published in the journal Emerging Adulthood.
Helicopter parenting refers to over-involvement at a time when children should be making most of their own decisions and primarily managing their own lives.
“It’s parents stepping in and doing for the child that which the child should be doing for themselves,” said Larry J. Nelson, lead author and professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. He and Laura Padilla Walker, an associate professor in Family Life, and graduate student Matthew G. Nielson surveyed 438 college undergraduates across the nation at four schools (not BYU) to see whether parents make decisions for them such as where they should live or work, which classes to take and whether they jump in to solve problems with roommates, among other things.
In most cases, parents navigate well the boundaries, the researchers said. But not always. The research builds on work in 2012 that found the extreme parenting style, while well-intentioned, may prevent children from developing important decision-making, problem-solving and confidence-building skills. At the time of that research, Nelson and Walker said the children are old enough to work, fight a war and start a family, but their parents are excessively involved anyway.
“I think the overall message is that being over-involved is not helpful for young adults, even if you have a great relationship with them,” Walker said of their recently published research. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be warm and supportive. By all means, stay available for your young adult children and involved in their lives in appropriate ways. Just be careful not to be over-involved – especially if you don’t have a good relationship with your child.”
Nelson said he was surprised to find that a warm relationship didn’t mitigate the harm caused by helicopter parenting. “I really thought that if there’s a good relationship, there might be context.”
He noted they have not studied whether some children have characteristics that make parental control less of a problem. But he said that all overly controlling behavior appears to be problematic.
“This reinforced for me that there are three aspects of parenting that matter at any age: love, control and granting autonomy. All children need to be allowed some freedom to make choices, although it will look different at every age and the balance is different,” Nelson said.
Clearly, a 3-year-old will have fewer choices and be subject to parental control, but a young adult should have a lot of autonomy, a low level of control and love will look different at that age, he said.
Both he and Walker emphasized that it’s not an issue of parents being involved in a child’s life. Parents should always have caring roles, such as a trusted adviser or sounding board.
Not aware of it
Parents often don’t realize they are hovering, said Steven Roy Goodman, an educational consultant and admissions strategist in Washington, D.C., who co-authored “College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family.” He was not involved in the research.
“Just about everybody I talk to says they’re not in favor of being a helicopter,” he said, “but when their son and daughter need help with tutoring or something else, (the parents) drop everything. The underpinnings of why people want to do that are real but the issue of students developing their own capacity to function in society is what I think is the most serious issue. Students need to learn how to navigate the world. There’s a sweet spot where you want to make sure your students are getting the assistance they need today and being able to navigate the world tomorrow.”
He, too, said most parents navigate their roles quite well and do not hover over their children. But the number who do has been growing. Still, the BYU researchers added that the damage from helicopter parenting is not as severe as that left by parents who harshly control or manipulate their children.
Sometimes, Goodman added, it boils down to verbs: helping vs. doing. Many parents simply take over. “I’d discourage it. There has to be a point at which students sink or swim on their own,” he said.
“If you were born in Europe 500 years ago to a family who lived in a palace,” he said, “it wouldn’t really matter, because your whole life there’d be someone able to take care of things for you.” But that’s not the reality of American life, where children need to grow up to navigate.” There are people who only fly in private planes, but the vast majority need to know how to print out a boarding pass and get around an airport,” Goodman said.
He also noted that moms and dads don’t always look at it the same way, either. One parent may hover more than the other would prefer.