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Helping or hovering? When 'helicopter parenting' backfires

Amanda Lucier / The Virginian-Pilot via AP file

As the first generation of kids who have "helicopter parents" graduates into the world, some some studies show that the parenting style may have backfired.

The father who called to dispute the C grade his adult son got on a college exam had good intentions, Chris Segrin knows. He only wanted what was best for his kid, and if that involved lobbying the University of Arizona professor for a change, so be it.

“Somehow, his dad just seemed to know that the exam was worth a grade of a B,” says Segrin, a behavioral scientist who studies interpersonal relationships and mental health.

But what the dad didn’t know is that the phone call actually undermined his son, leaving the young man feeling insecure and incapable, not empowered and supported, a casualty of what researchers like Segrin describe as an epidemic of “overparenting.”

“When it was all done, the son came in. He was actually a nice kid who apologized profusely,” Segrin recalls. “Sometimes this type of parenting is imposed on children against their will.”

Whether it’s called overparenting or the better-known “helicopter parenting,” the style of overly attentive, competitive child-rearing popular since about the mid-1990s may have backfired.

As the first generation of overparented kids continues to graduate into the world, a slew of studies, including Segrin’s, now show that youngsters whose parents intervene inappropriately -- offering advice, removing obstacles and solving problems that kids should tackle themselves -- actually wind up as anxious, narcissistic young adults who have trouble coping with the demands of life.

“The paradox of this form of parenting is that, despite seemingly good intentions, the preliminary evidence indicates that it is not associated with adaptive outcomes for young adults and may indeed be linked with traits that could hinder the child’s success,” concludes Segrin’s latest study, set to be published next month in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

Other recent studies also have found that too much help can create undesired outcomes, including a paper by California sociologist Laura T. Hamilton that says that the more money parents spend on their child’s college education, the worse grades the kid gets. Another study by Virginia psychologist Holly H. Schiffrin finds that the more parents are involved in schoolwork and selection of college majors, the less satisfied their kids feel with their college lives. 

Courtesy Studio One to One

C. Lee and Khris Reed write the blog "Helicopter Mom and Just Plane Dad," in which they chronicle their attentive efforts to parent 16-year-old Hailey. They defend their "extremely overprotective" style of parenting and disagree with studies that show that so-called helicopter parenting hampers young adults' coping skills.

That news doesn’t sit well with parents like C. Lee and Khris Reed of Seffner, Fla., who are the producers of a blog dubbed “Helicopter Mom and Just Plane Dad: Tales from the Not-So-Darkside of Parenting.” In it, they proudly chronicle their all-too attentive parenting of their only child, 16-year-old Hailey, dubbed “Beloved” on the blog, and they don’t apologize for it.

“We are extremely overprotective and overbearing,” says mom C. Lee Reed, 42, an executive assistant at a large orthopedic practice. “I know at every second where she is and who she’s with. I will monitor every bit of technology. She knows the rule is we know every password.”

The Reeds are familiar with research on helicopter parenting and, in short, they don’t buy it. Good parents naturally are invested in every aspect of their children’s lives, they contend.

“I don’t agree that just because we’ve been that way, we hamper her,” says C. Lee.

Adds Khris Reed, 41, a general manager for a local auto parts store: “When people say ‘helicopter parent’ or ‘helicopter mom,’ in general, it’s the idea of the mom standing in the bushes with binoculars. The far extreme has put a bad rap on it.”

They believe that Hailey, who attends an online high school and doesn’t drive yet, is developing the life skills and self-sufficiency she’ll need to flourish at college in a few years, and later on her own, while still maintaining close ties with Mom and Dad.

For her part, Hailey thinks so, too.

“They teach me a lot of things that I’ll need to know in the real world so that I’m not lost and I know how to take care of myself,” she says.

Helicopter parenting sprang up in the era of “Baby on Board” signs, mandatory car seats and bicycle helmets and police department fingerprinting sessions to prevent child abduction. There was a greater sense of anxiety, combined with a greater sense of competition, as the children of the massive Baby Boom generation reached high-school and college age, says Margaret Nelson, author of the 2010 book “Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times.”

“Parents have become constantly more involved in their children’s lives than they were a decade or two ago,” says Nelson, a professor of sociology at Middlebury College, a top liberal arts college in Vermont.

There was a push, especially among educated working professionals, to provide youngsters with every opportunity to succeed, from homework tutors and lacrosse camps at age 8 to college application essay assistance at age 18, the experts say. Parents became fierce advocates for their children, intervening with teachers, coaches -- even employers.

The problem with all that help, says Segrin, is that when it’s overdone, it keeps children from developing their own age-appropriate strengths and skills.

“When we do not give the child the freedom to try on his or her own and maybe fail on his own, he doesn’t develop the competency that children who fail learn,” he says.

Segrin’s latest papers relied on interviews with more than 1,000 college-age students and their parents from across the nation. They found that many of the young adult kids are in touch with their parents constantly, with nearly a quarter communicating by text, phone or other means several times every day and another 22 percent reaching out once a day.

“There’s this endless contact with parents,” says Segrin, who doesn't have children. “I don’t think it’s just calling to socialize. A lot of it is, ‘How do I?’ ‘Will you?’ ‘Can you?’ They are still quite reliant on their parents.”

The studies showed that parents who felt more anxiety about their children and more regret about their own missed goals led to greater overparenting. At the same time, they found that kids who were overparented were more likely be anxious and narcissistic and to lack coping skills.

That makes sense to Elizabeth May, 22, a recent University of Arizona graduate who participated in Segrin’s research with her mom, Suzanne May, 55. She says her parents were not the helicopter type, but she knows of plenty who were.

In one instance, the house where May lived with roommates was broken into and things were stolen. May called the landlord to ask that an alarm system be installed, but before she could finish the negotiations, her roommate’s mother rushed in and demanded action.

“I felt like it kind of undermined my communication with our landlord,” she says. “I feel like we could have gotten it done ourselves.”

Separating harmful overparenting from appropriate parenting isn’t easy.

“There’s no sure 100-percent fault-free parenting guidebook,” observes Suzanne May.

In this culture, helicopter parenting is almost contagious, observes Nelson, the Middlebury College professor, with parents vying with each other to prove how engaged and attentive they are.

It would be better, suggests Segrin, for parents to put that energy into helping children -- especially late adolescents and young adults -- learn to handle problems and setbacks on their own

That can be challenging because different kids can handle responsibility at different ages, experts say. But it starts with parents actively choosing to let children experience the consequences of their actions instead of rushing to intervene. Suzanne May, an elementary school teacher who left the workforce while she raised her three kids, recalls a time when one child forgot crucial homework and called to ask May to bring it to school. 

"I told her, 'No, it's your responsibility. I'm not at your disposal to say, 'Hey, Mom, I forgot this,'" May says. That was a hard stance at the time, but her daughter learned that she needed to remember her work. 

In the short run, letting kids suffer discomfort or failure is tough, Segrin says. Most parents want to help their children if they can. 

“Overparenting is motivated with the idea of doing good things,” Segrin says. “But it does the exact opposite in the long run. In the long run, parents are impairing their child’s coping skills. They’re winning the battle, but actually losing the war.”

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