Are you helping or helicoptering your college student?

By Aleutie/Shuttestock
By Cartoon Resource/Shutterstock

Your teen is off to college. This is a big step into the world of adulthood … or is it?

According to psychiatrist Dr. Robert Fischer, teens who are making a healthy launch into young adulthood begin to pursue career paths based on their morals, talents, and passions. Although they are nervous about the future, they look forward to making a difference in the world.

Yet other teens experience ‘failure to launch’ syndrome, having no idea where they’re headed. They attend college for random reasons: because it is expected of them; because their friends are going; because they want to live away from home. They lack inner motivation — a sense of purpose that propels us to achieve goals and become fulfilled, independent adults.

So why is it that one young adult steadily climbs into the wild blue yonder of their dreams, while another never truly gets off the runway? According to psychologist Dr. David Verhaagen, lack of inner motivation is most prevalent in individuals who have been ‘helicoptered’ throughout childhood. Their well-meaning parents have micromanaged their lives to ensure happiness, safety, and success. In the end, these young adults never develop independent reasoning, envisioning, or planning skills.

Helicopter parenting often continues throughout college. Such parents are reluctant for their ‘babies’ to experience hurdles in life such as heartbreak, loneliness, or failure. Therefore, they oversee, critique, and organize their young adults straight through graduation. Ultimately, this does not produce successful young adults who are ready to take on the world.

Instead, these young adults become followers, living day to day without any particular target. Some of them find it difficult to land a job in their field. And according to recent research at Cal State Fresno, even those who find jobs in their field feel dissatisfied, craving something they can’t define. They are also more likely to have difficulty coping with various scenarios in the workplace. While they are certainly older, they have not actually grown up.

Could you be over-parenting your high school senior or college student? Circle any items below that are true for you. Then, count your responses.

  1. I have strongly urged my child toward a particular college.
  2. I have heavily steered my child toward a specific major.
  3. I research scholarships for my child.
  4. I influence my child’s roster selections.
  5. I order/pick up my child’s textbooks.
  6. I remind my child to complete assignments.
  7. I wake my child for school or work.
  8. I provide pocket money/new wardrobe for my child regularly.
  9. I do my child’s laundry/make their bed.
  10. I communicate with teachers/administrators for my child.
  11. I text my child multiple times during school hours.
  12. I help my child complete assignments.
  13. I pay my child’s bills (excluding tuition).
  14. I require frequent check-ins to ensure my child’s safety.
  15. I provide solutions to my child’s relationship issues.
  16. I arrange for my child to visit home frequently.

0-1:  Outstanding! You are encouraging independence and inner motivation.

2-3:  Be careful. You are doing more than is necessary.

4-6:  You are hovering dangerously close to hindering your child’s independence and fulfillment.

6+:   You are a helicopter parent. It is critical to encourage the launch into fulfilled, independent adulthood now.

The transition may be rocky at first. Over-parented young adults may whine, complain, or even ask you to continue making the decisions (or the bed!) for them. But as Christians, we can look to the examples of our Lord Jesus’s own parents —  particularly in what they did not do.

Joseph did not demand that Jesus pursue a career in carpentry; nor did he supply Jesus with pocket money for the road. Mary did not pack lunches for him to take along on his ministry. Instead, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus up in an atmosphere of prayer. They also recognized that he had to make his own way in the world — even if at times, that would leave him uncomfortable, uncertain, or alone.

In addition to prayer, propel your own young adult into solving their own problems and making their own plans with open-ended questions, such as:

What are your ideas for solving this problem?

What would be the best way to manage your time?

Is there a different way to approach this person?

What occurred in this situation that led to things not working out?

Which things are in your power to change?

You can do it. Keep reminding yourself that even Mary and Joseph worried about their young adult. They may have thought about helping him more, especially if he struggled. But ultimately, they trusted him to the care of God as he pursued his own unique path.

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