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Parental Involvement During College: Find the Right Balance

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Kids with overprotective parents have complained for generations, and some parents are afraid to let their babies grow up and become independent. It’s only natural that parents want the best for their kids, and helping them search for the perfect college is a great idea. It’s one thing to assist your son as he fills out college applications, but it’s a whole new ball game if you decide to write application essays for him.

Helicopter Parents

Studies are showing that mothers and fathers who are extremely involved in their children’s lives, nicknamed “helicopter parents” because of the way they constantly hover over their children, may do more harm than good.

According to researcher Neil Montgomery, a psychologist at Keene State College in New Hampshire, the term was originally coined by college admissions personnel when they started to notice a change in parents of prospective students — parents would call the admissions office and try to intervene in a process that had previously just been between the student and the college.

Information about a study performed at Keene State was published in a June 3, 2010 Today Show article. Research suggests that helicopter parents, or excessive overprotective parents, might lead to children who are ultimately not ready to leave the nest when it’s time to begin college.

So how did this all begin?

Some experts believe it’s because of the ways that child safety has changed drastically over the last few decades. Seatbelts were once optional, but children are now required to ride in car seats until they reach a certain height. These days, helmets are a must when bicycling and skating, and children receive their own cell phones once they start school in case their parents need to reach them.

It’s perfectly normal to protect your children and help them through life, but there needs to be a balance. Some parents don’t know where to draw the line and when to back off because they often equate growing up as dangerous. Children should be taught how to live responsibly and safely, but they shouldn’t be restricted simply because of their parents’ fears. Helicopter parents don’t know how to “stop” acting overprotective once their kids are in college, whether they wind up attending a local school and living at home or going off to college in a different state.

Side Effects of Helicopter Parents

I lived at home with my parents while I attended college in my own home town. They were always interested in my life and they asked questions about my day when I came home from school or work, but I wouldn’t say that they went overboard or made my decisions for me.

I had a friend on campus that was an entirely different story.

She grew up in a very small town about three hours away from our college, and her mother would call her constantly throughout the day. She would drive home on the weekends occasionally, but every now and then her mother would come visit her at school … and sleep in her dorm room. They were always on the phone or emailing each other. My friend and her mother were so close; it’s as if they each had separation anxiety problems simply because my friend was away at college.

The Keene State study did find that the rate of helicopter parents was higher in girls than in boys, with 13 percent of the study’s females being helicoptered compared with just 5 percent of the study’s males. Researcher Neil Montgomery also found that mothers were mainly the ones doing the helicoptering.

My friend moved back home after graduation, and we’ve lost touch over the years, but the last time I spoke to her she was still living with her parents … and paying most of their bills. She sounded angry when she told me that her brothers were not contributing, “because they had moved away and started their own families.” I’m certainly not a mental health expert, but it sounds like an odd situation to me. It’s as if the over-protectiveness of her mother has controlled her throughout her entire life, but she lets it happen.

Sociologists are finding that parents’ over-protectiveness can lead to a variety of problems in children … even once they are young adults in college. These problems include:

  • The inability to make their own decisions. If a young person’s mother or father made decisions for them their entire life, they’re going to have difficulty making up their own mind if their parents aren’t around to consult. College students who had every decision made for them may wind up calling their parents to discuss potential class schedules or even possible majors. This can happen because the student simply doesn’t feel confident enough to make up their own mind, or because they don’t want to make a choice that upsets their parents.
  • Lack of social skills. Young adults who spent most of their free time with their parents while they grew up may feel awkward in social situations. They might not know how to make friends or go on dates, and they may be too afraid to try.
  • A constant fear of failure and high anxiety levels. Some students’ number-one priority is making their parents proud, whether it be with grades or participation in college organizations. Anything less than perfect is simply not acceptable, and this can lead to problems dealing with life in general.
  • Fear of trying anything new. College should be a time of exploration and growth, but growing up sheltered from things might cause students to be afraid to try new things. They may be afraid to join a sorority or fraternity or afraid to take new classes and learn about a potentially new major.

Help Your Child Apply to College … But Don’t Apply For Him

As the time comes for children to begin considering colleges, parents should participate without going overboard. Parents should obviously be involved in the process because they will most likely be contributing to the costs associated with going to college, but they shouldn’t take over for their children.

Parents should think of themselves as a coach or a role model and assist their children throughout the process of finding a college. Here are some great ideas:

  • Search college websites with your child and ask them questions about what they’re hoping to find or experience.
  • Visit colleges and take campus tours with your child, but let them ask most of the questions.
  • Proofread college applications and essays, but don’t fill things out for your child.
  • Discuss future career opportunities or potential majors and offer suggestions, but don’t force a career upon them simply because “it’s in the family” or “you always wanted them to be a doctor.”

Aim to “Do More Good than Harm”

With studies showing that helicopter parenting often does more harm than good, it’s important for parents to let their children grow up … especially if they’re off at college. Helen Johnson, author of the book Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money claims that most parents do what they think is right for their children, even if they’re doing exactly what’s wrong. She serves as a consultant for some of America’s top universities and has found that some parents are too involved in their children’s lives.

Parents are checking their children’s email to remind them of deadlines, balancing their checkbooks, and even calling with wake-up calls to make sure students are out of bed in time for the morning. While some students may find their parents helpful, it’s just too much. Parents, if you find yourself itching to “help out,” remind yourself that micro-managing your children’s lives will most likely cause them to have problems in the workplace once they are finished with college … and most supervisors aren’t going to let Mom or Dad rush into the office and save the day.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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