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Helicopter Parents in College: Who They Are, Why They Hover, & How to Deal


Aubrey Ireland, a 21-year-old collegiette studying at the University of Cincinnati, has made headlines because of a buzzword being tossed around parenting circles lately: helicopter parents. The musical theatre major successfully obtained a restraining order against her overly involved parents who were notorious for showing up unannounced at her dorm, accosting her with tons of false accusations related to drug use or different mental issues, and exhibiting other seemingly crazy behaviors. While Aubrey’s case is pretty extreme, helicopter parents have become an increasingly touchy topic in the last few years with collegiettes and parents alike struggling to figure out how involved to be in each other’s lives, especially if parents are funding a significant part of the bill, live super close or really far from campus, and feel the need to help their kids navigate an increasingly tricky job market. HC took a closer look at what it looks like when a helicopter parent decides to hover over their collegiette into college.

What is a helicopter parent?

“We’ve all heard stories of the parent who calls a professor to challenge their student’s grades [or] the parent who would drive hours each week to do the student’s laundry,” says Patrick Winter, Senior Associate Director of Admissions at the University of Georgia. Stories like the one cited by Winter have in fact become commonplace enough for Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries to provide definitions of a helicopter parent, describing them as “a parent who is overly involved in the life of his or her child” and “a parent who takes an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their child or children,” respectively.

But how much parental involvement is too much involvement? While there’s no one strict definition of what makes one parent a helicopter parent while another is merely an involved or engaged mom or dad, different professionals in various fields like education and psychology have pinpointed several key characteristics of a parent who has become just a little too involved. “The term ‘helicopter parent’ refers to parents who are intrusively involved and overprotective, micro-managing and taking charge of issues better tackled by students themselves,” says Dr. Susan Bakota, a licensed psychologist and marriage and family therapist who has worked with students at UCLA for more than 25 years. “This phenomenon may occur with college students whose lives have been closely monitored and shared with parents throughout their school years.” Other classic examples of helicopter parenting include:

  • Calling their child’s employers or sending their child’s resume to a potential internship or job without asking.
  • Attempting to manage every part of a their child’s schedule, from what classes she should take to what activities she’ll join.
  • Contacting different departments at a school or college to take care of minor problems (think annoyances or frustrations like a broken AC unit in the child’s dorm, a paperwork snafu, or some other minor detail) instead of letting their child handle it themselves.

All of these are examples of helicopter parenting because they’re instances where a parent does something their child really should be able to handle by his or herself once he or she has arrived at college. It’s essential that your parents realize how important it is that you have room to grow and deal with difficult situations such as the frustration of tracking down your RA to get your room back to a reasonable temperature or the annoyance of ruining a fave pair of jeans the first time you attempt laundry using the sketchy machine in the basement of your building. These experiences are all a part of the college experience!

Why do parents hover in the first place?

“Some parents are uncomfortable when they know their child is experiencing a problem. Parents may feel compelled to step in and fix it,” explains Dr. Bakota. “Helicopter parents have good intentions, but their rotors may hover too closely, sometimes intervening with college staff to negotiate grades, schedule classes, or make room changes.”

It’s no secret that parents like to be included and hear about what’s happening in their child’s life, but some take it too far. “Most parents want to be involved in the lives of their children and want to help them make a successful transition to college,” says Winter. “For many of the students, college will be the first time in their lives that they will be responsible for making many of the decisions that, prior to college, they were not required to make. While the separation can be challenging, it can be complicated further when parents remain involved at the expense of the student learning self-sufficiency.” 

While it might be nice to have mom deal with your uber-scary econ professor instead of having to work up the nerve to talk to him yourself, having a parent intervene too much on your behalf means you might miss out on some important learning moments. “College students need the opportunity to solve their own problems,” says Dr. Bakota. “Learning to balance a check book, manage debit or credit cards, [and] work out relationships with roommates are all developmental tasks appropriate for young adults.”


Hovering after college

The effects of helicopter parents aren’t just visible in college; they’re also becoming more evident in the workplace. The Collegiate Employment Research Institute, based out of Michigan State University, conducted a study in which they talked to 725 employers about parent involvement in the job application process. The study found that 23 percent of participating employers observed parental involvement at some point in the hiring process “sometimes” or “very often.” The study found that this trend is most prevalent in large companies with more than 3,700 employees. In terms of what parents were doing on behalf of their child, the same study found that 31 percent of respondents said a parent had submitted a resume for their child, while 26 percent of respondents said they’d heard from a parent in some shape or form promoting their child as a potential employee.

The irritation amongst employers is starting to show, too. One respondent said they had to tell a parent: “Please tell your student that you have submitted a resume to a company. We have called a student from our resume pool only to find they did not know anything about our company and were not interested in a position with us.” Another one expressed frustration over “a lengthy discussion with a mother on why the company could not arrange a special interview for her son who could not make the scheduled on-campus interview.”

What can you do to ground your helicopter parent?

Being firm with your parents about what parental involvement you’re comfortable with goes a long way in preventing your parents from hovering so close. “Every student needs to have an open and honest dialogue with their parents regarding the levels of parental involvement,” says Winter. “Setting parameters early on can help the student learn to be self-sufficient and resilient.” It might even be helpful to set parameters before you get to college, if you’re in high school.

Dr. Bakota says that maintaining clear lines of communication when you’re away at school is important if you’re worried about parents hovering. “When a student expresses understanding and empathy with parents, it can lead to more open communication. When parents see their student handling challenges well and making good decisions on their own, they may be more likely to give him or her more space,” she says.

Make it clear that you appreciate feedback and interest from your parents, but that you’re the one who decides how involved they should be. Keep your parents updated on what’s going on with your life, but structure what you share with them in a way that limits the need for them to get involved. Telling them about a bad grade you just got may increase the chance they’ll want to act on your behalf, while sharing a story about how you stopped by during office hours to work out a second chance to improve a grade shows them you’re more than capable of dealing with whatever’s thrown your way.

Striking a balance between “OMG, just let me breathe!” and “Do you even know what school I go to?” with your parents in college can be difficult. It can be tricky to know how much is too much when it comes to Mom or Dad’s involvement. “Ideally, (the) parents’ role is that of a consultant to college-age students. They can provide respect, support and encouragement, and allow students to handle issues on their own,” says Dr. Bakota. If something’s bugging you about a comment a parent makes or an action they take, talk things over with them. Emphasize that you appreciate the interest in what’s going on in your life, but that you need some space to make your own decisions and learn how to be (or at least act like) a grownup. Chances are they’ll understand, appreciate the maturity on your part, and be happy to be a parent of such a great collegiette!

Sydney is a junior double majoring in Media and Cultural Studies and Political Science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., a short trip away from Minneapolis, her hometown. When Sydney is not producing content for a variety of platforms, she enjoys hanging out with friends, watching movies, reading, and indulging in a smoothie or tea from Caribou Coffee, the MN-based version of Starbucks.