So-called helicopter parenting negatively affects university students. Picture: THINKSTOCK
So-called helicopter parenting negatively affects university students. Picture: THINKSTOCK

TURBO-charged parents still running their university-aged children’s schedules, eating habits, laundry and holidays could be doing more harm than good. Scientists say these students are more likely to be depressed and dissatisfied with life.

Researcher Dr Holly Schiffrin from the University of Mary Washington in Virginia found so-called helicopter parenting negatively affected university students by undermining their need to feel autonomous and competent.

Her study found students with overcontrolling parents were more likely to be depressed and less satisfied with their lives, while the number of hyper-parents was increasing with economic fears fuelling concerns over youngsters’ chances of success.

While the research is US-based, similar patterns are showing up in other countries, including in South Africa.

"You expect parents with younger kids to be very involved but the problem is that these children are old enough to look after themselves and their parents are not backing off," Dr Schiffrin, an associate professor of psychology, says.

"To find parents so closely involved with their college lives, contacting their tutors and running their schedules, is something new and on the increase. It does not allow independence and the chance to learn from mistakes."

Dr Schiffrin’s study, published in Springer’s Journal of Child and Family Studies, comes as debate rises over how much parents should run their children’s lives to help them succeed.

Dr Schiffrin says the increase in technology has changed parents’ involvement in their children’s university lives, as the once-a-week phone call home is replaced with regular texting, e-mails and messaging.

The competitive marketplace and jostling for top university slots and the best jobs has also boosted the involvement of parents in college lives.

She says to counteract this, increasing numbers of universities are starting to run parental orientation days parallel to events for students ,to help encourage parents to give their children more freedom.

Learn from mistakes

In the UK, a housemaster from top British public school Eton College is involved in a campaign to get parents to slow down a little, arguing that hyper-parenting may in fact demotivate a child, and even cause psychological damage.

Mike Grenier says the increase in helicopter parenting in the UK in the past 10 years had accompanied a changing attitude towards childhood, with more anxiety and fear over youngsters now seen as being at risk and vulnerable if confronted with failure.

The greater focus on testing and success at exams has fuelled this and raised anxiety levels further, he says.

"There is a very fine line between the helicopter parent and the committed and caring parent while at the other end of the spectrum is the negligent parent which can be more dangerous," Mr Grenier says.

"But this time of austerity seems to be ratcheting up the tension with more competition for jobs."

Mr Grenier says it is disconcerting to see parents in the UK putting children as young as three or four into tutoring to ensure they get into the best schools and remain in the best schools to get top university places.

"There is the fear that if they don’t get the right school and don’t get the right university then they won’t get the opportunity to fight for the best jobs," he says. "The stakes are higher in people’s minds."

Mr Grenier is an advocate of a movement called "slow education", a concept adapted from the Italian culinary movement that has prompted a wider philosophical approach to travel, business, living and now schooling.

"The real danger of hyper-parenting is that it is intrusive and parents don’t let their children make their own decisions, take risks and learn for themselves," he says.