Is your kid going to college? Don’t be a helicopter parent

After years of close involvement with their children’s education, parents can find it hard to give up control. But overbearing parenting benefits no one

As the Leaving Cert results glow fades, it’s replaced by the new reality of college fees, turning strangers into friends and navigating sprawling campuses.

It also marks a turning point in the child- parent relationship which, for the latter, can be quite the adjustment.

"Parents can really feel a loss when their child starts college," says Colleen Blaney Doyle, a student adviser at UCD who is currently finalising her PhD on how parents perceive the first year of university.

“They’ve had years of being really involved in their child’s education and all of a sudden that stops. Some feel that because they’ve paid the registration fee that they should be kept informed, but third-level institutions don’t operate like that. Parents really need to take a step back at this stage, become a consultant, and provide advice when it’s asked for.”


However, third-level support staff and academics are noticing an increase in parents who find relinquishing control ever more difficult.

In this newspaper earlier this year, Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern Irish history at UCD, wrote that while "most parents do not want to hover excessively over their college student offspring, it has been noticeable for many years that many are too intrusive".

He cited cases where parents got in touch with requests for extensions for their children’s assignments and “unpleasant” phone conversations with parents about exam results that had fallen short of expectations.

Being overly involved this way has given rise to the term “helicopter parenting”.

New research, published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies in May, characterised helicopter parents as "overly involved, protective parents who provide substantial support (eg financial, emotional and physical health advice) to their emerging adult children, often intervening in their affairs and making decisions for them."

The study, which was reported by Forbes magazine, found that helicopter parenting can increase a student's risk of depression and anxiety, but found that developmentally supportive parenting can increase the student's wellbeing and independence.


So as a college parent, how can you become the consultant rather than the director?

Brian Gormley, head of campus life at DIT, advises that a good place to start is to become familiar with the college and the services available, as research shows that when students get into difficulty in college, one of the main groups of people that they ask for advice is their parents.

“Parents knowing what services are available and how things work is very helpful, “ he says. “If a student is having difficulty with maths, parents can point them toward the learning centre. It’s about having a healthy interest rather than smothering them.

“We’re getting people ready for their careers and they need to be taking responsibility for their own learning and work.”

For the student, loneliness can be a factor when they first begin, and that’s something they might not want to admit.

"You feel like you're supposed to be excited and happy all the time and that you have to put on a brave face," says USI president Annie Hoey. "You feel like you can't say 'I'm not okay.' But it's really important to be able to say that, and for parents keep an eye out to make sure their child is ticking along all right before a problem spirals out of control."

For the most part, first-year students are ill-prepared for university life, says Noirin Deady, first-year experience co-ordinator at UCC. “They experience personal challenges, for example culture shock due to the diversity of the present environment, and often have unrealistic expectations and fear the unknown.”

And while a parent's natural instinct might be to try and protect them, allowing young people to make their own mistakes is crucial to their development, says Bernadette Ryan, a psychotherapist with Relationships Ireland.

“Parents feel they’ve learned from their mistakes and they are trying to avoid their children doing the same thing, but they have to remind themselves that’s how they learned. Trial and error is part of becoming an adult.”

Ryan says that when the student does come up against difficulties, encouraging them to resolve them themselves is the best option.

“By all means support them and be in the background, but parents are doing their children no favours by continuing to smooth the path for them. Now is the time for them to guide their child towards independence and adulthood.”


Maeve Costello, mother to 18-year-old Lauren, from Dromod, Co Leitrim, is apprehensive but excited for her daughter to study nursing at NUIG.

“We will miss her a lot but I’m happy for her to go. She has matured a lot over the past year and is fairly self-sufficient.

“I do plan on visiting the campus and finding out as much as possible about the supports there. She’s the oldest so there’s nobody to fall back on who has been there before so it’ll be good to know what’s there and advise her if needs be.”

“Rather than me being a mammy our relationship is more like being friends so communication won’t be an issue.”

Lauren, who can’t wait to meet new people and explore the city, knows that she can always count on Maeve for advice and support, but she doesn’t foresee a situation where her mother would turn into a helicopter parent.

“She realises what age I am and that she doesn’t have to completely hold my hand. I do rely on her a lot and she does suggest things to me but she’d never tell me what to do and wouldn’t ever be completely in my business.

“I think that will continue as I go to college.”

Getting the balance right: Six tips for college parents

1 Communication is key: Ask open-ended questions rather than ones that yield a yes or no answer: "What is the most difficult class?" or "Who is your favourite lecturer?" can be good to get students talking and to identify any issues.

2 Don't panic: It's normal that some students might question their course choice or consider changing it; this doesn't mean they will drop out. Discuss it openly and listen to their concerns. Refer them to the relevant university supports if needs be.

3 Set an agreed time to talk on the phone and have a catch up as students can get distracted and forget to regularly check in.

4 If the student is commuting from home they may want to have all the freedom of college, but none of the responsibilities of cooking and laundry, etc. Talk about how you can strike the right balance.

5 Be aware that the college cannot, under data protection law, communicate with parents. The relationship is between the third-level institution and the student.

6 If you're finding it difficult to let go, examine what is going on in your own life and why you feel this way. Your child starting college can be an opportunity to refocus on yourself, your career or a hobby.