Family Matters

Hover No More: Helicopter Parents May Breed Depression and Incompetence in Their Children

A new study in the "Journal of Child and Family Studies" found that being overly involved in your grownup kids’ lives can do more harm than good

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Helicopter parents, stop hovering: it’s officially not good for your kids — especially if they’re already grown.

A new study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that being overly involved in your grownup kids’ lives can do more harm than good. The research was conducted by the same scientists who showed last year that intensive parenting — constantly stimulating your children — can make moms more depressed.

You may think you’re helping out by phoning your kids’ college professors to haggle over the difference between a B+ and an A–, but that interference may be undermining young adults’ ability to problem-solve and fend for themselves. Constantly texting adult children and friending them on Facebook — letting them fly the coop but still demanding daily check-ins — is not exactly building a generation of confident and resilient grownups. And the problem only snowballs. “Parents are sending an unintentional message to their children that they are not competent,” says Holly Schiffrin, lead author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington. “When adult children don’t get to practice problem-solving skills, they can’t solve these problems in the future.”

(MORE: The Growing Backlash Against Overparenting)

To reach this conclusion, Schiffrin and colleagues surveyed 297 college-age children about their parents, asking a barrage of questions: Are your parents involved in selecting classes? Do they contact your professors about your grades? (Schiffrin herself has been on the receiving end of such calls more than once.) Do they intervene if you have a roommate issue?

The students also reported on how satisfied they were with their lives, as well as their feelings of depression and anxiety. And they were questioned about the “self-determination theory,” which holds that every person has three basic needs in order to be happy: they must feel autonomous, competent and connected to other people.

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Their answers showed that helicopter parenting decreased adult children’s feelings of autonomy, competence and connection. In turn, feeling incompetent led to increased reports of feeling depressed and dissatisfied. “These parents have the best intentions,” says Schiffrin. “They are being involved to help their child be successful. But as we know from the previous study, that high level of involvement is stressful for parents and it is not benefiting the kids. It’s actually harming them.”

As exhausting as such hands-on parenting is, and despite the toll it may take on the moms’ mental health, they tend to consider the sacrifice worth it because they believe they’re helping their children. Schiffrin knows the feeling. “Personally, I feel a lot of guilt anytime I’m not doing something for my kids,” she admits.

But her work should help moms to shift that perspective. Perhaps by choosing to watch Downton Abbey reruns instead of playing Candyland with a tot or editing college essays for a high-schooler, they’re actually building their offspring’s independence and confidence.

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“For me, this at least says it’s O.K. to not do as much as other parents are doing because I’m helping my child become self-sufficient,” she says. “If we are doing something that is hurting us and is not helping our kids, then we need to stop.”