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Lycinda Rodriguez, Beth A. Kotchick, Ph.D., Jason Parcover, Ph.D., Carolyn M. Barry, Ph.D.

Helping or Hurting? Helicopter Parenting and Psychosocial Adjustment among Emerging Adults

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The concept of “helicopter parenting” has been a popular topic within modern day media (e.g., “How helicopter parenting is ruining America’s children,” Los Angeles Times, 2015, October 28).  Within popular culture, helicopter parenting has been defined as overinvolved parents who pay extremely close attention to their child's experiences, often problem solving or making decisions for them, especially in the context of education (Bayless, 2013).  However, there has been limited empirical research to validate this form of parenting as distinct from other forms of parental control such as behavioral control and psychological control (Padilla-Walker & Nelson, 2012).  Moreover, little is known about how such parenting relates to psychosocial and developmental outcomes, particularly as children grow into adulthood (Padilla-Walker & Nelson, 2012).  With the advancement of technology and rise of enrollment in higher education, the transition to adulthood, marked by entering marriage, joining the workforce, and beginning a family, has been extended.  In the 1960s, the median age for marriage was 21-years old and most individuals were established in their careers by that age (Cohn, Passel, Wang, & Livingston, 2011). Today, the average 21-year-old is not married, is in college without a full time job, and has yet to have children.  These changing demographics and the corresponding delay of adulthood prompted recognition of a distinct developmental phase coined “emerging adulthood” (Arnett, 2000). Emerging adulthood is characterized as a time of independence, exploration, and self-development, as emerging adults learn to balance multiple priorities (Arnett, 2014).  Parenting at this time may be particularly challenging in that parents often remain actively involved in their college students’ life, which may interfere with the development of the autonomy and independence needed for a successful transition to adulthood (Tanner, 2006).

The current study seeks to further clarify the distinction between helicopter parenting and other forms of parental control experienced by college students, as well as examine the associations between helicopter parenting and college students’ level of autonomy, social adjustment, and academic adjustment.  One-hundred-and-forty-nine undergraduate students participated in an anonymous online survey assessing their relationship with their parents, the quality of their social adjustment, and their self-reported grade point average in college (GPA).  Results indicated that helicopter parenting was positively and significantly related to both psychological control and behavioral control.  In addition, multiple regression analyses indicated that helicopter parenting was a unique and significant predictor of both autonomy and GPA above and beyond the effect of psychological and behavioral control, with higher levels of perceived helicopter parenting relating to lower levels of autonomy and lower GPA.  With regards to social adjustment, psychological control emerged as the only significant predictor, such that higher levels of psychological control were related to lower levels of social adjustment.  These findings suggest that helicopter parenting may be negatively impacting a college student’s psychosocial and developmental outcomes.  These results may be particularly useful to parents, students, and college institutions, and may inform new student orientation programs, counseling centers, and student affairs professionals who work closely with students and parents during this critical developmental period.

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