Black Hawk Down: Time to Stop Helicopter Parenting

College Student texting
Although parents simply want to help their children, they may be undermining them without knowing it. Anthony 22, Creative Commons

As exhausting as many mothers find "helicopter parenting" to be, the sacrifice is well worth it since they believe they're helping their children by closely supervising them. Yet studies find that intensive parenting has a negative impact on college-aged children.

To better understand the results of helicopter parenting, researchers at University of Mary Washington requested college students, ages 18 to 23, complete an online survey. Often ascribed to mothers more than fathers, the term helicopter parenting, a term coined by Foster Cline and Jim Fay of The Love and Logic Institute, describes a nurturing style where the mother hovers over her children, paying too much attention to a child's experiences and problems, particularly at school. Of the 297 students who participated in the study, 34 percent reported their mothers worried if there was no immediate response to a call or text. About 41 percent said their mothers did their laundry, while the same percentage said she expected them to call or text her regularly with their whereabouts. And just under one third of the students reported their mothers managed their bank accounts.

"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."

Feeling less competent was associated with student depression and decreased satisfaction, Schiffrin's research found. The students were also questioned directly 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. 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.

Schiffrin said professors and administrators often believe helicopter parenting is a rising trend. It is also one that started some time ago. From 1981 to 1997, for instance, free playtime among 6-to-8-year-olds dropped 25 percent and homework more than doubled, according to Time Magazine. While previous generations understood that constant attention and too much interference undermines a child's ability to problem-solve and fend for themselves, contemporary mothers often work full-time outside the home, and in their efforts to compensate for perceived lacks, they often overdo it with the technological oversight.

Or might there be other reasons helicopter parenting?

In an article published more than a decade ago in The British Journal of Psychiatry, researchers investigated the clinical contention that high-concern parenting in infancy is associated with the later development of anorexia nervosa.

To better understand the relationship between parenting and the disorder, researchers analyzed the cases of forty consecutive referrals of adolescent girls with DSM-III-R anorexia nervosa and compared those with matched controls. The mean age of the anorexic subjects was 16.9 years and the mean length of their illness was 15 months. About 75 percent of the girls were treated as out-patients. Obstetric notes of each case as well as matching control cases were obtained; all references to the subject's name were masked, enabling blind scoring. Then, the researchers conducted clinical interviews with all the mothers, covering each subject's pregnancy, early infancy and childhood. Studying the records as well as the interviews, researcher searched for evidence of intense concern occurring anytime before the onset of the disorder.

Their findings? Mothers of daughters with anorexia reported higher rates of: infant sleep difficulties, severe distress at first regular separation, near-exclusive child care, high maternal anxiety levels, and later age for first sleeping away from home.

Most disturbingly, though, researchers discovered that, in comparison to the control families, mothers with anorexic daughters had more frequently experienced a severe obstetric loss prior to their daughter's birth. Fifteen percent (six of 40) of these mothers had experienced a perinatal or infant death prior to the birth of their child who later developed anorexia nervosa, compared with just 2.5 percent (one of 40) in the matched control group. In total, 10 mothers of the cohort with anorexia nervosa had experienced a prior severe obstetric loss (25 percent) compared with just three mothers (7.5 percent) in the matched control sampling. In all but one of these cases, the child who developed anorexia nervosa was the next-born female.

Other factors that were enquired about but showed no differences between the mothers of daughters with anorexia nervosa and control mothers included: the length of time the child was breast-fed; any reported eating difficulties in the first five years; consulting outside professionals in the first two months; the period of time nursing their daughter in the same room as the parents at night; parental perceptions that their daughters needed more care and attention than other children; and the incidence of serious life-threatening illnesses.

The researchers concluded that their study lends evidence to the clinical contention that high-concern parenting in infancy is associated with the later development of anorexia nervosa. This may derive, in part, from aspects of unresolved grief.

 

 

Sources: Schiffrin HH, Liss M, Miles-McLean H, Geary KA, Erchull MJ, Tashner T. Helping or Hovering? The Effects of Helicopter Parenting on College Students' Well-Being. Journal of Child and Family Studies. 2013.

Shoebridge PJ, Gowers S.G. Parental high concern and adolescent-onset anorexia nervosa: A case-control study to investigate direction of causality. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2000.

 

 

 

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