Add another to the list of strikes against overinvolved, “helicopter” parenting: researchers have found that it can make college students feel incompetent, which in turn can make them depressed.
“There’s been a lot of talk about how these helicopter parents are bad,” psychologist Holly Schiffrin of the University of Mary Washington told BuzzFeed Shift, “but there’s been very little research.” And while some researchers have started to find that parents who hover too much may be harming their kids, no one has looked at why this behavior might be harmful.
In a study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, Schiffrin and her coauthors surveyed 297 undergrads at a liberal arts college, the majority of them female. They asked the students how much they agreed with statements like “If I am having an issue with my roommate, my mother would try to intervene” and “If I were to receive a low grade that I felt was unfair, my mother would call the professor.” There’s no established scale yet for helicopter parenting, so the study authors took these statements from news articles and books on the subject, as well as from their own experience as professors — and they focused on mothers because their effects on children have been studied more extensively, though they hope to look at helicopter fathers as well. They also gave the students questionnaires to assess their level of depression, their general satisfaction with life, and their feelings of autonomy and competence.
The study authors found that students who reported high levels of helicopter parenting were less satisfied with life, and more likely to be depressed, than those whose parents were less involved. The reason, they believe, lies in the way helicopter parenting made them feel.
Specifically, the children of helicopter parents felt less competent than kids of non-helicopters. Said Schiffrin, “We think when parents are overinvolved with their kids lives, they’re undermining their sense of competence, both by sending a message that says, I think you can’t do it yourself, and robbing them of the opportunity to practice those skills.” Children of helicopter parents also reported less autonomy — the feeling, as Schiffrin put it, of “having a choice in your own life.”
“It was really not feeling autonomous and not feeling competent that were associated with depression and lower life satisfaction,” said Schiffrin.
“Most of the time when parents are doing these things, they think they are being helpful to their child,” she added. “But college students are adults and they need to be learning how to be adults, which means solving heir own problems. If we don’t give them the opportunity to do that, we really are taking something away from them.”