College-age children with “helicopter” parents have a harder time anticipating life on their own, but choosing the right friends helps.
That’s what Mount Holyoke College psychologist Katherine “KC” Haydon found when she asked some 200 Mount Holyoke students how stressed they felt about becoming an adult and taking on decisions about their career and romantic lives more independently. The results of the study, conducted at Mount Holyoke’s Relationships, Attachment, and Development Lab, were published online in January in the Journal of Adult Development.
“Helicopter parents” linked to student stress.
Students whose parents were heavily involved in their lives were more stressed than those with less involved parents, the study showed. Haydon said that hovering parents’ support “can come across as ‘My parent doesn’t believe I’m able to do this on my own. What does that say about me?’ ”
“A parent’s job is to help kids develop and to back off appropriately as a child gains autonomy,” Haydon said. “The trick is for parents to help a college student learn how to do more things herself, which will instill confidence.”
Friendships help students gain independence.
Students with close and supportive friendships are more likely than other students to feel they can take on adult responsibilities.
“It could be that people who feel more competent are better at picking supportive friends, or maybe supportive friends reinforce a sense of competence by saying things like ‘You’re going to nail that job interview!’ ” said Haydon, a 2000 graduate of Mount Holyoke.
Some aspects of the study could have been special to the group she interviewed, Haydon said.
“One of great things about MHC is that we have smaller communities within the College,” she said.
Psychology majors, for example, encourage one another as they prepare their internship and job applications and even conduct mock interviews.
“That kind of support among peers doesn’t happen at every college,” she noted.
How well an individual feels she’s doing compared with her peers is related to both stress around adult development and competence at adult skill building, Haydon added.
“Feeling that you’re behind your peers was related to stress, and feeling ahead of peers was linked to feeling more confident,” Haydon said.
Conflicting feelings are also common, she said.
“This developmental period is a time of oppositions—students are feeling an incredible amount of hope and an incredible amount of uncertainty,” Haydon explained. “I wanted to focus on how people experience those two possibilities simultaneously.”
For example, a student might be stressed at the prospect of becoming an adult and be proud of her progress toward that goal.
“Students could gain a lot from thinking of the transition to young adulthood as a diversity of pathways, rather than thinking, ‘There’s one path to success and I need to be on it and at the head of the pack.’ ”
• Podcast and video: KC Haydon talking to Mighty Married Moms on "How Not to be a Helicopter Parent."
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