Helicopter Parenting in Emerging Adulthood

February 10, 2016 1:50 PM | Anonymous

Written by Laura Padilla-Walker, PhD

Helicopter parenting during emerging adulthood – it’s a relatively hot topic the last few years. Especially in the news media. But what is helicopter parenting, how much of this hype is reflected in the research, and how common is this type of parenting during emerging adulthood? 

Larry Nelson and myself have published a few studies in this area and are learning more about this construct, though still scratching our heads to some degree. Helicopter parenting can be simply defined as parental over-control – so an instance where a parent is solving problems for their emerging adult child that he or she could solve for themselves. So if a parent is calling her child’s college professor to debate a grade or setting up job interviews for her son, she may be a candidate for a parent who hovers a bit too much! We know from our research that helicopter parenting is a form of parental control, though it’s distinct from both behavioral and psychological control. There are at least three measures of helicopter parenting now in circulation (and probably more in the works), but most research outside of our lab suggests this form of parental control to be universally negative, while we find a somewhat more nuanced set of findings. We certainly can’t claim that helicopter parenting is a good thing, but we haven’t found it to be as bad a thing as all the excitement suggests. In addition, levels of helicopter parenting are similar to levels of behavioral control during emerging adulthood – which are generally quite low. So the visions we have of helicopter mothers and fathers rushing around college campuses or frantically following their children as they go to work and maybe even peering in the window to make sure their child is staying on task…may not be as rampant as the media sometimes lets on. In addition, our findings suggest it isn’t nearly as detrimental to the child’s well-being as other forms of control.

Because our first study suggested helicopter parenting may actually be related to a few things that are positive (e.g., EAs self-reported parental guidance and involvement), we sought to understand in a more recent study whether there may be some more positive forms of helicopter parenting. More specifically, we wondered if maternal warmth might moderate the links between helicopter parenting and outcomes, where the outcomes might not be so negative if the parent has good intentions and a good relationship with the child (as compared to the helicopter parent who just wants to maintain control). So in this recent study we looked at over 400 emerging adult college students from across the United States and examined the links between helicopter parenting and EA outcomes (e.g., self-esteem, risk behavior, etc) – moderated by parental warmth. Consistent with our other work, we didn’t find helicopter parenting to be directly associated with any outcome (other than a marginally negative finding with school engagement) – but we did find a few instances of moderation, though not necessarily in the expected direction. Turns out that high levels of maternal warmth aren’t overly protective, but lower levels of maternal warmth make a non-ideal situation worse (see Figures 1 and 2). More specifically, self-worth was lowest and risk behaviors were highest when helicoptering mothers were also low on warmth. So helicopter parenting in the context of a non-supportive parent-child relationship may be a much stronger recipe for negative outcomes than helicopter parenting alone. The take home message at this point in the research on helicopter parenting?  It is a complex phenomenon that, fortunately, does not occur as much as we think (at least in the populations we’ve examined.)  It certainly does have the potential to stifle young people’s development but usually only in conjunction with other negative aspects of parenting (e.g., low parental warmth).  It isn’t the worst thing a parent can do but it isn’t the best either.

Figure 1. Two-way Interaction Predicting Self-Worth

Note. Simple slope follow-up analyses were significant at -1 standard deviation of maternal warmth and marginally significant at +1 standard deviation of maternal warmth

Figure 2. Two-way Interaction Predicting Risk Behaviors

Note. Simple slope follow-up analyses significant at both -1 standard deviation and +1 standard deviation of maternal warmth.

A couple of ideas on where the field needs to go next! First of all, we are always in need of non-college and longitudinal samples during this age period. The role of helicopter parenting on emerging adults who don’t attend college is a fascinating question that deserves future research, as it may look very different than it does for those who attend college. It will also be important to examine the long-term effects of helicopter parenting, which may significantly delay the transition to adulthood if gone unchecked through the first part of the third decade of life. We also suggest it will be important for future research to distinguish over-involvement from healthy involvement during emerging adulthood, as the last thing we want to do is to suggest that parents shouldn’t be involved in the lives of their children! We know from many other studies that parents continue to be important in the lives of emerging adults, but it’s unclear if this involvement is most helpful in the form of emotional closeness and warmth, or if it extends to other areas of involvement. More importantly, determining how much involvement is too much continues to be nebulous, especially when we consider how that might vary from child to child. We also think it will be important for research to consider helicopter parenting that is initiated by the parent versus that which is initiated by the child. Most of the hype assumes these are parents hovering over their children whom they just can’t seem to let go, but it is equally possible that there are children begging for their parents to keep solving problems for them even though they would grow much more by solving the problems themselves.

Clearly this is an interesting area of research with a great deal of room for growth! We hope that if any of you have ideas or data sets that would accommodate these types of measures, you will explore them and help us move the field forward in this regard!

For extra reading:

LeMoyne, T., & Buchanan, T. (2011). Does “hovering” matter? Helicopter parenting and its effect on well-being. Sociological Spectrum, 31, 399–418.

Nelson, L. J., Padilla-Walker, L. M., & Nielson, M. G. (2015). Is helicopter parenting

smothering or loving? Parental warmth as a moderator between helicopter parenting and emerging adults’ indices of adjustment. Emerging Adulthood, 3, 282-285.

Padilla-Walker, L. M., & Nelson. L. J. (2012). Black Hawk Down? Establishing helicopter parenting as a distinct construct from other forms of parental control during emerging adulthood. Journal of Adolescence, 35, 1177-1190.

Schiffrin, H.H., Liss, M., Miles-McLean, H., Geary, K. A., Erchull, M. J., & Tashner, T. (2014). Helping or hovering? The effects of helicopter parenting on college students’ well-being. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 23, 548-557.

Segrin, C., Woszidlo, A., Givertz, M., Bauer, A., & Murphy, M. T. (2012). The association between overparenting, parent-child communication, and entitlement and adaptive traits in adult children. Family Relations, 61, 237–252.

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