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Helicopter Parents Learn College Is Time For A Landing

Freshman year is a time of transition—and one of the biggest transitions has to do with the parent-child relationship.
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Freshman year is a time of transition—and one of the biggest transitions has to do with the parent-child relationship.

What might have been seen as responsible parenting during the K-12 days, including making sure a child gets to class on time, checking homework assignments, and advocating with teachers and administrators on a child’s behalf, is now considered "helicoptering." The parent who hovers over a freshman college student from wake-up call to "goodnight text" is getting in the way of that child’s transition to adulthood.

Students, meanwhile, have to navigate new boundaries with parents who are used to constant contact and who often want to step in and solve their children’s problems.

“Throughout the Pre-K through Grade 12 years, being a good parent has meant being involved and engaged in your student’s life. At the college level, the perception is altered completely,” said Marjorie Savage, author of You’re On Your Own (But I’m Here If You Need Me): Mentoring Your Child During the College Years. She says this transition is very difficult for parents to make, but it’s essential to both the parent and the child’s development.

“Parents become partners. Your role changes,” said Harlan Cohen, author of The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College. “When you become a partner, your goal is to help your child become a self-advocate. The only way your child can become a self-advocate is if you give your child space and time and permission to struggle and find these answers. That’s hard for parents who are always attached.”

Savage lists three questions for parents to ask themselves before trying to solve a problem for their child.

  1. Can most students this age handle this situation?

  2. Did my child ask me to do this?

  3. What can my child learn by solving this problem?

“In most cases, [your child] can meet people who can help them now and in the future, and they learn the problem-solving and decision-making skills that they need at this point,” Savage says.

“Parents don’t want any bumps in the road, but kids need to manage bumps in the road,” says Christine L. Schelhas-Miller, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University and co-author of Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years.

She echoes Savage and Cohen’s advice by suggesting that parents listen, empathize, and then let their children do the work of solving problems.

This advice is great for parents, but what about freshman students who are also navigating this relationship transition? Wake Forest University senior Isabella Basco offers freshmen some advice. “I think it’s fair that you let your parents know how you’re doing every day, just so they know that you’re safe," she said. "At least every day or every couple of days, send them a quick message letting them know you’re okay.”

Basco also advises freshman students that honesty is still the best policy. “My parents were very protective of me in high school, and I was afraid of telling them everything I did in college, but they were very supportive and we were very open about it," she said.

"Even if they might be disappointed in a decision I make, nothing is secret and everything is completely open between us. I think it’s important for parents and kids to establish that kind of communication.”

What if your parents are helicoptering over your new college life? Savage has a phrase she wants all freshman students to practice saying: “Mom, Dad, I’ve got this.”

Or, as Cohen puts it: “Listen to them, tell them that you hear them and love them, then do what is right for you.”