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.”