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Helicopter parenting is bad for college kids—but a little hovering is just right

College is just institutionalized purgatory.
Reuters/Brian Snyder
You don’t have to go it alone.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

In the three months between graduating high school and starting college, first-year students don’t suddenly graduate to emotional adulthood, too.

As parents and children say goodbye on college campuses, in airports, and in bus stations this month, both sides are likely feeling a combination of excitement, sadness, and anxiety—but for different reasons. While many students focus on the challenges of the academic life ahead of them, they (and their parents) may not be emotionally and psychologically ready for the step into social independence. Most teenagers still need their parents, although in a different way than when they were living at home.

The current practice of expecting parents to back off completely is endorsed by educators, mental-health professionals, parents, and students themselves. But this is like throwing a beginner swimmer into the deep end of a pool with the expectation that they’ll be forced to learn to swim to stay afloat.  Some do well with this form of learning by immersion, but others pay a high price in terms of their safety, well-being, and healthy development into adults.

Many students could benefit from more parental involvement, especially in the early months of the first year of college. Research has shown that college students actually do best when they and their parents are able to find a healthy balance between independence and connection. In an important study, Indiana University professor George D. Kuh found that students whose parents were more involved in their lives were actually more successful at college than their “liberated” peers.

As a psychotherapist who has worked with students and their parents for more than three decades, I have found that making a healthy, successful transition from home to college is one of the most important tasks of adolescent development—for students and parents alike. But it is also one of the most difficult.

In 2016, first-year college students reported higher levels of anxiety and depression than at any time since 1966, when this data was first gathered. College mental-health services also report that they are strained to the max with students seeking assistance and support for depression, anxiety, addictions, and social pressure to engage in dangerous drinking and sexual behaviors.

Neuroscience can explain part of the reason why this stage of life is so complicated. Research has shown that the human brain does not completely mature until around the age of 25—and the last area to finish developing is the part of the brain responsible for good judgment. This is significant. College students don’t suddenly strengthen this part of their brain through separation alone. They still need some parental guidance, although clearly of a different sort than they needed when they were younger. This does not mean coddling or keeping college students attached at the hip, but rather providing a gradual shift from home to home-away-from-home.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, most children have been working on separating from their parents since they learned to crawl. Bit by bit, students individuate from their families and develop important relationships at school instead of with relatives. But relational theorists tell us that healthy separation does not mean total disconnection.

Some colleges and universities offer useful advice to help parents and their students make a successful transition. Here are a few suggestions I have gleaned.

  • Guide your student, but don’t pressure them. Respect their point of view and their need to exercise their newfound independence. Listen more than you talk.
  • Ask open-ended questions, such as “What are you learning?” rather than closed ones about test scores or grades.
  • Actively express your interest in what they tell you by asking follow-up questions.
  • Share some of what is happening in your own life. Shifting to a more balanced, egalitarian model of conversation sharing is part of the transition to a more adult, mutual relationship.
  • Initiate conversation about your expectations for this new relationship. Be direct about your own thoughts about finances, contact, roommate arrangements, and drug and alcohol use. But listen to your child’s point of viewon this matter, too. If you’re going to be honest, you have to expect them to be, too.
  • Allow for mistakes while encouraging them to recognize and respond appropriately to dangerous situations. Be available (and make it clear that you are available) when they need help rectifying a slip-up. You and they will both learn from these experiences.
  • Remind them that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. And if they need more than you have to offer, help them find and make use of mental-health services on or off campus.
  • Use college resources for yourself. Go to parents’ orientation sessions when you bring your student to college and attend some of the workshops specifically prepared for you on parents’ weekend.

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