Helicopter Parenting & College Students’ Increased Neediness

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By Peter Gray

In my last post I summarized reports from directors of college counseling services concerning college students’ rising levels of depression and anxiety, declining abilities to cope effectively with problems of everyday life, and increasing feelings of entitlement (unreasonable expectations about what other people should do for them) over recent years.  A common theory is that these changes may be at least partly attributable to a rise in what is commonly referred to as helicopter parenting—an over-protective, over-controlling, intrusive style of parenting that may prevent young people from learning how to solve their own problems and take responsibility for their own lives.

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A first step toward testing this theory is to look for correlations between helicopter parenting and students’ emotional and behavioral wellbeing.  Are students who have helicopter parents more likely than other students to manifest the kinds of problems that college counselors report as on the rise?  A number of research studies have examined this question, and the results of all of the studies I have found indicate that the answer is yes.  Here is a sample of them.

Jill Bradley-Geist and Julie Olson-Buchanan (2014) surveyed 482 undergraduate college students.  Each student filled out a questionnaire designed to assess helicopter parenting in which they responded, on a 5-point scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree, to each of the following five items: (1) I think my parents/guardians are too involved in my life; (2) I feel like my parents/guardians sometimes smother me with their attention; (3) My parents/guardians have interfered with my life when I wish they wouldn’t; (4) I sometimes wish my parents/guardians would “back off” and stay out of my business; (5) My parents/guardians are too controlling of me and my life.  Each student also completed a questionnaire designed to assess their level of general self-efficacy—that is, their belief that they are capable of meeting life’s demands and solving their own problems.  In addition, they filled out a questionnaire that described various workplacescenarios and asked how they would respond if they were in that situation.  In one scenario, for example, they were asked how they would likely respond to a negative performance review from an employer.

 The results were as predicted.  Those students who reported the most helicopter parenting scored lowest on the self-efficacy scale and also gave the least adaptive responses to the workplace scenarios. For example, in response to the critical performance review from an employer they were less likely than the others to say that they would listen to the criticism and try to improve (which was scored as an adaptive response), and they more likely to say that they would quit the job, or explain to the employer why the rating was unfair, or ask a parent to call the manager on their behalf (which were scored as maladaptive responses).

In another study, Michelle Givertz and Chris Segrin (2012) surveyed 339 college students and their parents (mostly mothers).  The students and the parents completed questionnaires having to do with the parents’ style of parenting, and the students also completed questionnaires aimed at assessing self-efficacy and sense of entitlement.  The entitlement questionnaire had questions concerning the degree to which the student felt that he or she deserved special favors, beyond those that others would receive.  The results were that those students who had the most controlling and intrusive parents manifested the lowest scores on the self-efficacy scale and the highest scores on the entitlement scale.  In further studies using a similar design, Segrin and his colleagues (2013, 2015) found that helicopter parenting correlated significantly with students’ higher levels of narcissism and reduced ability to cope emotionally with setbacks.

 

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