FSU research: Helicopter parenting hinders children’s self-control skills

Parents who continue to hover over their children as they move through early adulthood and begin college: Please don’t.

New research from Florida State University explores how helicopter parenting leads to lower self-control among young adults, which could contribute to school burnout. The research also suggests that helicopter parenting from fathers could be especially harmful.

Helicopter parenting is a style of parenting in which parents excessively monitor their children and often remove obstacles from their paths, instead of helping them develop the skills to handle the inevitable difficulties of life. In their work, published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, researchers looked at why helicopter parenting may harm young adults. They found that hovering parents give their children fewer opportunities to practice self-control skills, such as the ability to manage emotions and behaviors.

“Self-control allows us to regulate behavior in order to achieve our long-term goals,” said Professor Frank Fincham, an FSU Eminent Scholar and director of the FSU Family Institute. “It is a skill that can be learned. For example, people can learn to recognize impulsive thoughts and set a time limit before they act on them. They can also learn to remove temptation, like switching off a cell phone and putting it in another room, which makes self-control easier.”

When helicopter parenting hinders development of self-control skills among college students, those students are more likely to experience school burnout – exhaustion from schoolwork, cynical attitudes toward their education and perceived inadequacy.

“Burnout is a response to ongoing stress that is important because it saps the student’s energy, reduces their productivity and leaves them with a diminished sense of accomplishment,” Fincham said. “They feel increasingly helpless, hopeless and resentful, exerting less effort on their studies, which leads to lower grades. In some cases, students end up dropping out of college.”

In their study, researchers used self-reported scores from students about how involved their parents were in their lives, how effective the students were at exercising self-control and how much they experienced school burnout. They controlled for variables, such as gender, race, year in college, family structure and family income.

Dealing with school burnout often spawns more mental health challenges, such as anxiety, depression or addiction, and leads to worse academic outcomes, researchers said.

Researchers also investigated how over-parenting from a mother or a father can lead to different outcomes, something that previous studies had not examined. They found that although emerging adults might experience more over-parenting from mothers, helicopter parenting from fathers is more associated with burnout. That might be because, in the United States, mothers are often perceived as more involved in the daily lives of their children than fathers, researchers explained. When fathers are overly involved, their emerging adult children may feel more stress to perform well in school.

It’s unclear if helicopter parenting by fathers leads to lower self-control scores for students, or if paternal helicopter parenting is a response to lower self-control and school burnout. Researchers said additional work should investigate paternal helicopter parenting over time and examine possible differences in how father-son and father-daughter pairs interact.

For parents who are worried they might be over-involved in the lives of their children, study co-author Ross May, a research assistant professor and the associate director of the Family Institute, recommends self-reflection.

“If you think you’re behaving in a way that’s counter-productive, take a moment and reflect,” he said. “We talk about mindfulness a lot. We’ve seen that mindfulness helps for outcomes. Take a second, reflect on what’s happening, understand your surroundings, know the context and then evaluate your behavior. Now, getting that understanding is going to be difficult, but that’s kind of a step one.”

Doctoral student Hayley Love and Professor of Family & Child Sciences Ming Cui contributed to this work.

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