Dealing With Helicopter Parents in College

By Brian O'Connell · August 04, 2023 · 7 minute read

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Dealing With Helicopter Parents in College

Some college students grapple with a challenge that has little to do with grades or the overall college experience: helicopter parents.

These well-meaning moms and dads insert themselves into the lives of their emerging adult children to a degree that may hinder the development of coping skills.

College orientation programs for nervous parents have become more common. Even so, some parents have trouble letting go. With the price of college having doubled in 20 years, some parents want to make sure they’re getting their money’s worth.

Hobbled by Helicopter Parenting

The risks of helicopter parenting are real, researchers say.

In a review article published in June 2022 in the Journal of Emerging Adulthood, researchers analyzed more than 70 studies done over the last 20 years on helicopter parenting. Across the board, they found strong negative associations between overparenting and a college student’s development in the psychological, behavioral, social, academic, and career areas.

Researchers define helicopter parents as moms or dads who “excessively monitor their children and often remove obstacles from their paths, instead of helping them develop the skills to handle the inevitable difficulties of life.” Helicopter college parents may reach out directly to college professors and administrators about grades or nag their children about academic deadlines and test results.

Why is this so harmful? When kids go off to college, they are entering a period of life psychologists call “emerging adulthood.” The goal during this phase is to become independent and self-sufficient. If a student’s parents are always doing things for them, it can keep them from learning essential skills they need to become a successful adult.

Overparenting can also make students feel inadequate and helpless, taking a major toll on their self-esteem. Studies have even found a link between helicopter parenting and higher alcohol and other substance use, depression and anxiety, as well as lower educational achievement.

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How to Deal With Helicopter Parents

For students stranded between demanding academic obligations and surveillance-minded parents, the path forward may involve a strong dose of self-discipline, a willingness to learn and make mistakes, and an open call for independence. Here are some ideas.

Adjust How You Engage

If parental hovering seems unavoidable, students may want to diplomatically tighten up engagements with Mom and/or Dad.

Unless the student is in a serious health or financial crisis, there’s no need for a daily phone call, Zoom meeting, or even text with parents.

Students should talk to parents before leaving for campus and ideally agree on a scheduled conversation, perhaps weekly or biweekly.

Students who do not feel pressured may decide that frequent calls, emails, or texts are OK — as long as they initiate the engagement.

Ask for a Coach, Not a Problem Solver

When a young person leaves for college, the temptation for many parents is to step in and solve every problem for them, thus taking a learning experience out of the equation.

Yes, living away from home for the first time can be intimidating and yes, a parent’s inclination is to take over the situation and straighten things out. That, however, may deprive the child of a much-needed learning experience.

Mistakes are inevitable. “It doesn’t matter how many times you fail. It doesn’t matter how many times you almost get it right. No one is going to know or care about your failures, and neither should you. All you have to do is learn from them and those around you …,” entrepreneur Mark Cuban has written.

Students should strive to make their own academic and lifestyle decisions (but not big health care or financial decisions, at least not yet), with parents supporting and coaching in the background.

Take the Long View

Helicopter parents invariably view their child’s problems and challenges on campus with a short-term outlook. Instead, students should emphasize the learning experiences they’re having and that the experiences are positive in the long haul.

While parents may fret over their child not getting into a class, missing out on a grant, loan, or scholarship, or just getting a problem roommate — situations that can call for a remedy — they’re experiences best handled by the student, who can make that exact case to parents.

It might be helpful to say: “Mom/Dad, I’m learning from my own problematic scenarios, I’m growing a thicker skin, and I’m learning how to solve problems and make decisions like an adult. When I do need your involvement, I hope you’ll trust me to let you know as soon as possible.”

The takeaway for both parties: A big part of attending college is becoming your own self-advocate in life, and some patience and pullback on the part of parents (and encouraged by the student) can help that happen.

Ask for Your Own Bank Account

To further declare independence from helicopter parents, college students may want to ask them to take their name off a shared bank account. Doing so will allow students to learn how to manage money on their own, with Mom and Dad in the background if needed.

Let parents know that any excessive spending or critical financial needs can, when necessary, involve them. But being responsible for finances is a critical lesson best learned by the student.

For college students, that means making the case that financial literacy is a gift and that college is a great place to earn it.

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Create Boundaries on Student Portals

Digital student portals are valuable tools for both students and parents, but college students may want to establish boundaries on parental portal engagements.

Yes, parents will want to log on to the parental portion of their student’s online college portal (mainly to check finances, review financial aid, and pay tuition bills).

Past that, there’s no need for parents to regularly plug in to their student’s primary online portal and sound off about everyday collegiate experiences.

Particularly, college students may not want their parents looking at their calendars, classroom grades, student-teacher interactions, and portal emails designed for the student’s eyes only.

College students can remedy that situation by having their parents agree on portal access conditions, like checking grades once a month or even once a semester.

Making the case that portal engagements, with boundaries, are the domain of the student can provide a sense of trust and privacy, especially in the first year at school.

Take a Bigger Role in College Finances

College students may be able to help their own cause by partnering with parents on college financing issues and learning to be good stewards of their college money.

That means visiting the financial portion of the college portal and seeing what has been paid, what is owed, and what is available in financial aid.

Helping out with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) each year will also give the student a realistic look at the cost of college, which may provide an incentive to make that cost worthwhile.

When you know exactly where you stand financially on campus, you can begin making decisions on key issues like course loads, living on or off campus, accepting a work-study program, and taking on a part-time job.

Additionally, taking a shared-responsibility role can help with long-term college decisions, like taking an internship overseas or moving on to graduate school.

The Takeaway

College students can take steps to deal with helicopter parents, who may hinder the development of skills to handle the inevitable difficulties of life.

The suggestions are rooted in convincing parents to take a supportive but not supervisory role in the student’s everyday college experience.

Financial literacy means knowing the options for paying the myriad costs of college, from tuition to housing and food: federal grants, work-study, student loans, merit scholarships, and private student loans.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

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