Parents are central supportive figures in their children’s lives. They provide both practical and emotional support for their children as they grow and develop. As a parent you always want to give and provide the best for your children. Yet, is it possible that this desire to give can be too much, and can a parent’s need to give support and protection have negative mental health effects upon their child? Research into a phenomenon that has been termed ‘helicopter parenting’ may suggest that there are potential pitfalls of ‘parenting too much’.

So, what does the research suggest is the definition of helicopter parenting (HP)? There is not complete agreement on that. However, it can be generally defined as parenting that is overly intensive and unnecessarily pervasive in the child’s life. This type of parenting may also be specifically related to the period of parenting when children are slightly older. The researcher Jeffrey Arnett has pointed out that there is a particular age of development in our older children, which we could call ‘emerging adulthood’. When our children reach a legally adult age, they do not instantly become an ‘adult’ in all respects, specifically in social and psychological terms. Researchers such as Arnett point out that development into a fuller adulthood takes time and experience, and is therefore a period of transition and growth. The parenting that children experience during this transition may be crucial to both psychological development and practical experience in life.

In emerging adulthood many young people are also engaged in key periods of practical activity, such as gaining higher qualifications at University. For this reason, helicopter parenting may be especially pertinent for the student population. Psychological research studies have begun to examine the effects of parenting experiences upon the mental health of these students.

In an important research study, Professor Holly Schiffrin and her colleagues at the University of Mary Washington examined whether there were any direct mental health implications of specifically helicopter-style parenting using a sample of 297 university students. Their findings provide a stark warning for all parents of university students.

The study first took measures of the intensity of ‘helicoptering’ experienced by the students from their parents. The researchers then proceeded to take several psychological measurements, which allowed assessment ratings for depression, anxiety and more global satisfaction with life. In addition to these main measures, the students were also scored for ratings of their judgements of self-competence, autonomy and social-relatedness.

By analysing the associations in all of these measures, Professor Schiffrin’s study showed that there were significant links between the experience of helicopter parenting and the development of higher levels of depression in the sample. It was also found that more helicopter parenting was linked to a lower global satisfaction with life. The link between parenting and anxiety was not shown to be significant.

How might we explain these findings? The researchers also added that intensive parenting lead to a reduction in feelings of competence and autonomy in the students. Perhaps, they suggest, feeling less competent and in control of their own lives had caused the increase in depression and more general loss of satisfaction in life for these students. One thing is for sure – these are central psychological aspects of the mental health and wellbeing for each person assessed, and they show detrimental effects of highly intrusive parenting.

So, what lessons can we take from such findings, and how should a parent be a parent for their student children? What is best practice in line with these findings? It may be primary to recognise that your child, especially in emerging adulthood, has needs for their autonomy and feeling of self-competence. After all, how can your growing child feel like they are creating their own self-worth in the world without the knowledge that they are (in part) responsible? Parents of older children may need to be aware that by trying to control and be close to their child’s life at all times can damage these basic psychological needs. Remember that an emerging adult needs some space, in order to be allowed to become that adult person.

While this may seem like a stark message for parents who have, or will have, older children and student children, there are still many questions left to research. Measurement of intensive parenting, such as helicopter parenting, is still in the early days. There are still difficult questions such as how much contact and support is a typically ‘healthy’ level of support for an older child. Older children still need parental support of some level, and some forms of support have been found to be beneficial for certain educational needs, as indicated in a research study by Rick Shoup from Indiana University. It is also worth noting that this may be an issue that is more pertinent for our older children, though there is also evidence that highly intensive parenting can have negative effects upon younger children too

Summary

Psychology research will continue to explore the influence of heavily involved parents, specifically for older children who may be emerging into their adulthood. The mental health of our children may be affected by the natural urge to protect and nurture our children, and we must be aware of this danger. While the need to provide some parental support will naturally always remain, the balance needs to be carefully considered by all parents.