Fuelling student mental health problems?

Might well intentioned parents be increasing the risk of mental distress for their children by engaging in helicopter parenting? Might this help explain the increasing number of middle class students seeking help for mental distress at UK universities?  

What is helicopter parenting?

Parents naturally want the best for their children and will usually do what they can to achieve this. Sometimes though, might they go too far - for example through catchment area cheating?

Another example is helicopter parenting i.e. ‘hyper-involved’, overprotective, ‘bubble wrap’ parents who hover over their children, ready to swoop in and protect them at the first sign of difficulty. Here are some examples reported by schools:

  • Regularly contesting their children’s grades throughout the year.
  • Explaining away late or uncompleted homework.
  • Blaming poor teaching for their children’s lack of focus or success.
  • Intervening constantly in friendship issues, expecting the school to mediate issues.
  • Editing or even writing their children’s homework.
  • Paying for tutors to help them understand and help with their children’s homework.
  • Monitoring phone calls, checking text messages and initiating communication several times a day to ‘check in’ on their children.

This may explain an example featured on national TV news in 2019. A male student was asked when he started to feel anxious at university and replied, the moment his parents walked out of the door.

Some universities now arrange separate sessions for parents at open days, to avoid them taking over from their children and asking all the questions. And one UK study found a third of parents and their student children surveyed were in touch by phone daily.

At the same time, we should probably beware of accepting uncritically the importance of helicopter parenting. As one former Head Teacher observed, adolescents can be quite good at ‘playing’ their parents and may be more susceptible to peer pressure, in particular now through social media. This suggests it is one of a number of different factors potentially influencing children’s mental health.

What are the mental health implications?

Most peer reviewed studies of helicopter parenting have taken place in the US. Some have suggested positive outcomes, including children’s perception of emotional support from their parents and adult child reports of life satisfaction (perhaps understandable if parents have smoothed the way to their child’s success, removing any obstacles for them). We should also beware of simply blaming parents for trying to do the best they can for the children.

However, most studies of helicopter parenting report a range of adverse effects for children’s mental health. These include increased levels of anxiety, stress and depression; decreased perceptions of wellbeing; increased emotional problems; neuroticism; dependency; sense of entitlement (the extent to which young adults believe others should solve their problems); low self-efficacy; and poorer coping skills.

The children’s charity Barnardo’s reported as early as 2002 that the more western countries have sought to protect children from harm the less resilient and prone to psycho social ill health they have become. Coping skills are developed by experiencing and overcoming challenges. So, if those challenges are removed by parents then coping skills are presumably also reduced. Where parents are a constant buffer between their children and the outside world, children have less opportunity to experience cause and effect and to take on responsibility. If they have never been allowed to experience and learn from failure they may find the prospect of failure particularly stressful.

What can be done to avoid helicopter parenting?

- Parenting isn’t easy and we shouldn’t make parents feel even guiltier. However, the more parents can see that helicoptering may help in the short term but could be storing up problems for their children longer term, then hopefully the more they will be open to scaling back their interventions.

Autonomy supporting parenting is one way forward.This includes consciously avoiding doing everything for your children (including their homework) – helping them to work out how to do things for themselves, including encouraging them to come up with creative solutions. It also includes letting your children take responsibility for their actions, where appropriate, so they can learn from their experience.

- Some schools now work with both students and parents, stressing the importance of failure as an opportunity to learn. One school, for instance, aims to cover the importance of failure, as an opportunity to learn, in both serious and light hearted ways. This includes celebrating and writing about failure and even having a Failure Week. The school’s view is that this seems to have been quite effective.

Michael Baber September 2019

 

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