Are You a Helicopter College Parent?

image via Flickr, J.K. Califf

image via Flickr, J.K. Califf

For many college students, going away to school represents the first real opportunity to be on their own…some relish it, some fear it!  For many parents, this is a time when they may struggle to let go and allow their child to demonstrate self mastery, to show responsibility in meeting multiple new expectations, and to dig down deep to grow, achieve and, ultimately, graduate!

The Difference Between Encouraging Dependency and Facilitating Independence

Large numbers of parents can’t negotiate the difficult transition from encouraging dependency to facilitating independence.

As a result, they become “helicopter parents,” hovering over every aspect of their college student’s life…daily “how are you doing” phone calls, repeated text reminders, wake-up calls, go to bed admonitions, daily grade checks on the college website, over the phone sobriety checks, tightly managing the bank account, and not so subtle threats about what will happen if he or she messes up!

It never ceases to amaze us how far co-dependent parents will go to protect their child from the reality of college life challenges.

One young man who recently came to us for help because he was struggling to meet expectations (i.e., submitting monthly reports, generating narratives to describe sales calls, etc.) in a job he secured with a Fortune 500 Technology Company after graduation.  As it turns out, these were demands he never really had to face at college.  “I never wrote one paper at college.  I would send the syllabus or the rubric for an assignment to my Mom who would do the whole thing and send it back to me to give to my professor!”

Co-Dependency Starts Young

Most parents sense that this degree of co-dependency is wrong but persist because the pattern is deeply ingrained.

Oftentimes, it developed years earlier in elementary or middle school.  Nagging about homework.  Making flash cards for their child to use to study for exams.  Obsessive editing of papers and essays.  Doing the homework.  Eliminating chores.  Tolerating underage drinking or drug use.  Minimizing problems.  Blaming the teachers.  Providing rewards for doing the basics.

Once this pattern is established, it can grow ugly in high school.  The child oftentimes is dependent upon a nag or a reminder to get things done, yet becomes resentful, disrespectful, and manipulative when they get one:  “Quit nagging me!  I’ll get it done!  Why don’t you trust me?”

Such interchanges can put parents back on their heels:  “Damned if they do” (having to tolerate an “attitude” brimming with anger, intensity and negativity” or “Damned if they don’t” (fear of their child failing, losing opportunities, and not experiencing success).

Co-Dependency at College

image via Flickr, Jose Kevo

image via Flickr, Jose Kevo

When college comes along, it all gets magnified.  Parents can justify their enabling behaviors because they are only “rightfully” protecting their financial investment!

As parents, the forces behind enabling/co-dependent behavior are particularly powerful…love, protection, empathy, fear, sensitivity, sacrifice, and guilt.  So powerful, in fact, that they can sabotage all the positive things parents can do to promote their child’s independence and chances for success.

Here are some of the things they can do to trip parents up:

  • — Interfere with their ability to take an honest look at their child’s strengths and weaknesses
  • — Make them feel defensive when their child fails to meet an expectation
  • — Blind them to their child’s role in his difficulties
  • — Lead them to do for their child rather than support him to do for himself
  • — Inhibit them from imposing necessary and appropriate consequences
  • — Encourage them to blame others when things do not go smoothly
  • — Act as a barrier that prevents them from allowing their child to take on ever increasing responsibilities for himself

Because co-dependency is so common (particularly in parents of children with ADD/ADHD) and it can be a critical barrier to success at college, we encourage parents to examine their enabling tendencies before and during their child’s college years.  In our new book, Accommodations for Success we have a simple survey called “First Things First” that can help parents assess their enabling tendencies.  Check it out!  Be honest and see where you stand!  “What’s you enabling quotient?”

How to Facilitate Independence

image via Flickr, MeganLynnette

image via Flickr, MeganLynnette

Sometimes, just being more aware of enabling tendencies helps parents reduce or control them.  However, when enabling tendencies interfere with a parent’s ability to develop and /or follow through with doing the right things to promote their child’s success parents may need to reach out for help.

This may be as simple as requesting a significant other to be a source of feedback when one demonstrates thinking and behavior that is enabling in nature.  Of course, inherent in this strategy is the need to be committed to being non-defensive and accepting of the feedback!

Some parents find that it is important to develop a support network or a buddy to regularly meet with to discuss some of these difficult issues.

Some find it most helpful to meet individually with knowledgeable professionals to help find a pathway to healthy thinking and behaving when it comes to promoting their child’s growth and development.

If you need some extra support with your co-dependent tendencies, give us a call at the Being Well Center…we’ve helped thousands of parents get their act together.

Step Out of the Way to Let Your Child Move Forward

Failure to get these enabling behaviors under control can be a major barrier to independence and success.

Sometimes parents have to step out of the way in order to allow their child/student to move forward and reach his/her full potential.

If this is hard for you, then it is important to reach out to a spouse, a co-worker, or a professional for support to meet this most difficult challenge!  Stay on guard and work to avoid allowing these tendencies to interfere with your child’s success at college.

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About cblmd

medical director of the being well center, ADHD expert, speaker, and author

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