What is ‘helicopter parenting’ and how bad is it?

Anne Balls

Helicopter parenting is a term coined in recent times to define an increasingly prevalent phenomenon of overly-protective parenting.

So-called helicopter parents are viewed as ‘hovering’ over their kids and “taking an excessive, overprotective interest in the child’s life, especially regarding education” (OED, 2018). The phenomenon first emerged in the US in the 1990s but has now crossed the Atlantic and become widespread in the UK too (Business Insider, 2015).

Here, parents have grown more involved since the hike in tuition fees. “Introduced in 1998 and increased threefold in 2012… it’s no wonder parents feel they have a stake in their child’s decision-making” (Guardian, 2014). Whilst young people struggle to fathom the scale of debt they’ll leave university with, their parents are far more attune to its implications. As one parent commented: “it scares the hell out of this generation.” Wishing to influence their kids’ decisions and success therefore seems logical, but there is a balance. Many believe parents are now going too far.

Psychologists claim over-protective parents can be doing more harm than good.

Why should universities care?

A generation of students who have had their paths ‘smoothed’ throughout school, are now heading off to university. Unable to break the helicopter habit, their parents are going with them.

Parents accompanying their Sixth Form children to university Open Days has now become so common that Oxford University has introduced separate sessions for parents and teens.

James Seymour, Director of Admissions and Recruitment at the University of Buckingham, said his staff sometimes “have to shoehorn parents out of the room” before tests (Telegraph, 2016).

GP surgeries often receive calls from parents intervening with a son or daughter’s healthcare. There are stories of students receiving morning alarm-calls from parents to ensure they wake up on time. And many students have been known to phone a parent multiple times a day.

Some parents have even been sleeping on their children’s floors and contacting tutors about grades (Guardian, 2014).

University students are young adults, but they are adults.

Moving to university is a chance to shine – to grow and discover independent life. To best benefit from these opportunities, students need to fail sometimes. They need to make mistakes and learn from them. Like many others, we are concerned that an increase in helicopter parenting could be stifling a generation and preventing them from confidently breaking out on their own.

The evidence of its impact

One US study revealed that students with a greater level of autonomy reported stronger feelings of life-satisfaction, better physical health and higher self-efficacy (the ability to handle difficult social and academic tasks and decisions). Students with a helicopter parent were more likely to report low levels of self-efficacy.

Another study showed that college students subjected to “helicopter parenting” reported higher levels of anxiety and depression and poorer physical health.

Helicopter parenting has been found to cause lower levels of maturity and resilience – particularly to failure. It has also been identified as a cause for increased perfectionism (Curran and Hill, 2017).

Finding the balance

No one is suggesting that the way forward is to discharge responsibility for children completely. But there is clearly a balance.

Robbie Pickles, Head of Recruitment at the University of Bath, said: “There are some sets of families where students are very keen to go [to university] and parents are driving them towards not going on to study (Telegraph, 2016).  In these cases, a bit more parental engagement might be helpful.

50 years ago paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Woods Winnicott introduced the concept of good enough parenting. He showed that parents who were loving and provided a stimulating environment – but also set boundaries and didn’t stress about doing enough – had children with the best outcomes. It seems to make sense – give your children support, but with plenty of room to grow.

At Unihealth we feel that empowering students with knowledge and tools to self-serve is also a step in the right direction. Our messages, delivered through instant messaging, provide students with a steady dose of handy tips and wellbeing advice to confidently navigate their first year at university.

It will be interesting to see how the trend of helicopter parenting develops in years to come. We will continue to speak with universities and health experts about their experiences and work together to establish the most effective wellbeing support for university students.