5 Ways To Avoid Becoming A Helicopter Parent As You Send Your Child Off To College

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Posted in: Hot Topics, You & Your Family, Young Adults

Topics: Child + Adolescent Development, Relationships

Emily, a college freshman, strolls from her dorm to her biology class and en route, she calls her mother so that she doesn’t appear aimless and lonely as she passes by her peers. She barely notices that almost all them are also on their cell phones. In class, she takes notes on her iPad, although she has several other screens open—she “checks-in” on Facebook, scans the latest celebrity news, and glances at her ever-dwindling checking account. She receives a text from her father reminding her to look for holiday airfares, the first of about 40 she’ll send and receive during the day. After class, Emily skips the library to spend some time playing videogames with her roommate. When she does go to the library, she manages to text her friends, do her economics reading, and watch an on-demand episode of her favorite TV show. Just before bed, she answers a FaceTime request from her mother who wants to check in on her day. When it’s time to go to sleep, she places her cell phone right next to her pillow, so that she will be sure to hear any incoming texts or calls during the night.

Emily’s story may not be so unusual for most college students living away from home. A USA Today snapshot reported that 50% of college kids can’t go more than 30 minutes without using a digital device. Young adults this age are using more technology than any other cohort: 84% have a social networking profile, and 97% have a cell phone. Those who attend college have the highest technology usage, and are likely to be online, using social networking sites, watching and posting videos, texting and playing videogames.

Modern technology also complicates the process of separation as young adults are moving away from home. With technology, it has never been easier to stay in touch. It may be that parents are contributing to this high consumption media diet through the role they play in maintaining a strong digital connection with their child away at school. Unpublished, preliminary data from our study (The Digital Family Project) suggest that:

  • 71% of parents send at least three texts per day to their child at college.
  • About one-half of parents call their child at college more than three times per day.
  • 50% of parents say they communicate the same amount with their child even though the child is out of the home.
  • 43% of parents are Facebook friends with their college-age child.

Similarly, a 2016 Pew Research Center study found that among U.S. adults who have at least one grown child living outside of the family home, nearly half say they are in contact with that child at least daily, and nearly 40% are in touch at least once a week.

This level of constant communication may complicate the process of separation that normally occurs when a young adult moves away from home. With technology, it has never been easier to stay in touch. Text messages, cell phones, social networking sites, video chats and email, have all made constant contact simple and expected. But at times, it can go too far. Clinicians report stories of parents who call each morning to wake their child up for class; parents who panic if they don’t get at least two text messages a day from their child; or, even parents who require that their child parade new college friends in front of a Skype camera before granting permission for their teen to befriend them.

Much of this behavior is driven by parents’ own anxiety. In the past, when there may have only been one (pay) phone on an entire dorm floor, it was hard for parents to try to manage this anxiety through constant contact and control. Technology now makes their children accessible 24/7.

We certainly advocate that parents be involved in their college child’s life; however, we do suggest some level of balance to avoid becoming a “helicopter parent” who digitally hovers from afar.

Five Tips For Parents:

  1. Set the rules of communication before your child leaves. Young adults and their parents should discuss how they will be in touch, and by which means (texting, phone, video chat).  The best time for such negotiation is before a child departs for college, preferably before both parent and child are deep in a state of separation anxiety.
  2. Follow your child’s lead. Young adults should take the lead in anticipating the amount and type of contact they think they will want, with the caveat that these patterns can be re-negotiated once the separation is underway.
  3. Set reasonable expectations. Parents and their children will need to agree on what constitutes a reasonable response time for youth to respond to their parents’ communiqués. Parents should be cautioned not to manage the details of their children’s lives, as a significant task of young adulthood is learning to handle more daily challenges on their own.
  4. Renegotiate as needed. The rules for contact may be appropriate for the first month that your child is away at school, but not appropriate 6 months later when both parent and child have fallen into new routines. Parents should be open to conversations about changing expectations for digital connectedness.
  5. Listen to guidance from your child’s university. Some universities have seen the harmful effects of so-called “helicopter parents” being deeply involved in the day-to-day details of their children’s lives, and have created curricula to help parents and kids set appropriate limits for contact.

A version of this post originally appeared and was written by the authors (Fishel and Gorrindo) in Psychology Today’s The Digital Family blog

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Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D.

Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D.

Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D. is the author of Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids (...

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Tristan Gorrindo, M.D.

Tristan Gorrindo, M.D.

Tristan Gorrindo, M.D. is the director of education for the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in Washington, D.C. He was formerly the managing director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard M...

To read full bio click here.