When Is It OK To Be A Helicopter Parent?

You've heard the critiques of so-called "helicopter parents" who can't stay away from their kids, smothering them with so much love and attention that they never develop self-reliance. Narcissistic, dependent, and unable to strike out on their own, your over-loved children expect everyone to wait on them hand and foot. They'll be doomed to a life of constant whining when they don't get their way, and will never be able to support themselves financially or emotionally.

Although children need to develop a certain degree of autonomy, whether they're in diapers or in college, sometimes they need the support that only their parents can provide. University of Texas psychologist Karen Fingerman, having conducted a number of studies on adult parent-child relationships, published a study with several collaborators (2012) in the well-respected Journal of Marriage and the Family to put the helicopter theory to the test.

The research team theorized that many young adult children today need their parents to help them through the so-called "emerging adult" years between 18 and 29. Not only are many young adults finding it difficult to make it economically, but they may also be experiencing emotional strains of finding their identities. They don't necessarily expect their parents to support them, but they're finding it rough to make it on their own.

Parents, for their part, sensing that their children are hurting, often want to reach out and provide them with emotional, if not practical, support. However, they worry that they're providing more help than they "should" based on the social norms of their own youth. If you're in this particular plight, it might reassure you to know that research based on the Longitudinal Study of Generations (Byers et al, 2008) suggests that parents of young adults report fewer depressive symptoms when they are heavily involved with their kids. When your kids need you, being able to help them allows you to feel that you "matter."

Fingerman and team had at their disposal a large sample of young adult parents and children who completed a computer-assisted telephone interview asking them about their patterns of support from parent to child, ranging from providing advice to assisting financially. Children answered questions about their own adjustment and life satisfaction, and parents rated their own life satisfaction

The findings showed that parents provided the most support in the emotional areas that included listening, emotional help, and advice; and less in the areas of practical, financial, and socializing. However, parents did not provide support equally to all of their children. About 30% of parents provided support to only one child (for those who had more than one child). Those children most likely to receive support tended to be younger, live with their parents, or to have children of their own, and mothers were more likely than fathers to provide intense support.

Instead of feeling smothered, the children receiving help were higher in life satisfaction and, surprisingly, strength of their own personal goals. It is possible that the reason they found this support so helpful was that they were in a life stage when the continued help of their parents could ease their adjustment into adulthood. Many parents, though, felt conflicted. It's not that they didn't want to help their kids, but because they hear so much in the media about the dangers of over-involved parents, they feel that there's something wrong with them for being in this type of relationship.

The take-home message is this: If you're the parent of a 20- or even 30-something, it's fine to offer your child advice, and even financial help. It doesn't mean that you, or your child, is a failure. Parent-child relationships continue to grow and change over the course of life, and providing support during times of need is a natural part of that evolution. During those times, being an involved parent can be helpful both for your child's, and your, mental health.

Byers, A. L., Levy, B. R., Allore, H. G., Bruce, M. L., & Kasl, S. V. (2008). When parents matter to their adult children: Filial reliance associated with parents' depressive symptoms. Journals of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Scienceand Social Sciences, 63, P33 - P40.

Fingerman, K. L., Cheng, Y. P., Wesselmann, E. D., Zarit, S., Furstenberg, F., & Birditt, K. S. (2012). Helicopter parents and landing pad kids: Intense parental support of grown children. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 880-896.

For more details on the study, visit my Psychology Today blog, "The Myth of the Helicopter Parent."

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