5 Signs You Were Raised By Helicopter Parents

And what to do about it.

09/30/2015 07:00 am ET | Updated Sep 30, 2015
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The term "helicopter parenting" is the same age as members of the millennial generation, which is telling.

The parenting style, characterized by a helicopter-like tendency to hover over children and swoop in to rescue them at the first sign of trouble, exploded into mainstream consciousness in the early 2000s, just as the oldest millennials were entering young adulthood. This was, to be fair, a fraught time in the culture: Between the events surrounding Sept. 11 and two economic crashes in 2000 and 2008, parents had cause for concern about their children's futures. 

Research is piecemeal, but a few surveys and studies reveal the phenomenon is widespread in the U.S. In one national survey of college students, 38 percent of freshmen and 29 percent of seniors said their parents intervened on their behalves to solve problems either "very often" or "sometimes." 

From the other direction, a 2013 Pew Research Survey found that 73 percent of adults in their 40s and 50s had given adult children financial help in the past year, and not all of it was for college tuition. This reveals one characteristic of helicopter parents: They're often from the highly educated middle class or wealthier, with social and financial resources to share with adult children.

While most parents start scaling back their involvement when children head to college, helicopter parents ramp up support. The worst examples of helicopter parenting include previously unheard-of behaviors like parents attending their adult children’s job interviews or calling college professors to argue over a grade. Meanwhile, their kids emerge from childhood without basic survival skills like how to cook, clean or do their own laundry

That hovering may have backfired. College counselors across the nation are reporting higher rates of general anxiety in this generation’s crop of students. And kids who say they had over-controlling parents have higher levels of depression and reported feeling less satisfied with family life. When they receive parental support they didn’t ask for, they feel less competent and have less initiative than peers who weren't parented in this way, and lack a sense of confidence because of it. 

Clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel, an expert on parenting and author of the books The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus, has been grappling with these issues. Many of her young adult clients are now coming to terms with what it was like to be raised by a helicopter parents, and how their ability to launch into adulthood may have been stunted by their parents’ overprotectiveness or even adamant refusal to let them struggle and fail on their own. 

Mogel has a message for these young adults: They don’t have to wait for their parents to change before they do. In fact, laying all the blame on parents without accepting some responsibility robs children of the agency they desperately crave.

"Your parents are not likely to wake up with insight into how terribly misguided and unenlightened their child-rearing strategies were,” Mogel said. “These folks were doing their best, they’re not likely to change and they seem to be doing just fine."

Of course, Mogel isn’t making light of parents who were abusive, traumatic or cruel. Instead, she’s defining helicopter parents as "ordinary, devoted, neurotic” moms and dads who did the best they could to raise their little ones, but who continue to loom large in their adult children’s lives. All too often, it leaves adult children resentful and adrift, which holds them back from full adulthood.

Mogel outlined five ways to tell you may have been raised by a helicopter parent — and how to break the destructive patterns of having been helicoptered.

1. You have to call Mom or Dad before making a decision.

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Cut the cord. Father (and Mother) know best, right? When you were younger, sure -- they prevented you from sticking forks in sockets, helped you fill out college applications and even had a word or two of advice about your new job. But if intense guidance carries over into adulthood, it could stifle a young adult’s decision-making skills, while giving parents more authority and expertise than is truly warranted.

"[Clients] have so much trouble making decisions, so they call their mom, who has very good intentions,” said Mogel. However, this parent probably knows no more about this particular moment in history and how to make good judgements than the adult child who’s asking for advice, she said. 

"This is your big moment to make mistakes and learn from them rather than staying tethered, feeling dependent, resentful and crabby," Mogel advised. “Put down the phone, experience some discomfort and reflect on what you might like to try or to do."

2. You count your parents as some of your best friends. 

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Make new ones. Of course, this is easier said and done, but consider this: According to a 2013 Clark University poll, two-thirds of moms and more than half of fathers say they have some form of contact with their adult child almost every day. In some ways, this is just cultural; NPR notes that the generation gap is getting smaller and smaller, as parents and children are more likely to agree about issues nowadays then, say, experimental Baby Boomers and their conservative parents in the 1960s. But this extraordinary closeness may be shutting young adults off to new relationships with people their own age -- friendships that could over time be a source of lifelong happiness and support. 

"Some of these young adults don’t have close friendships because all they have are their online friends and they are so close to their parents,” said Mogel. "This is the dark side of the wonderful closeness and friendship that a lot of parents and young adults have that nobody from my generation had." 

"Cultivate friendships and relationships outside of those who are easily accessed, comfy and familiar,” she advised. For some, that might mean reaching out to old pals we’ve lost touch with. For others, it might mean completely starting from scratch. Join clubs, community sports teams or meet up with Internet friends IRL to get going.

3. You resent your parents for their gifts and support. 

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Ask yourself some tough questions. No discussion about millennials is complete without acknowledging the down economy they entered right as they graduated from high school and college. Even though the economy is now technically “improving,” wages are stagnant and people can’t find full-time work in careers for which they trained. Add this to the pressure of paying back astronomical student loans, and it’s no wonder millennials are, more than previous generations, staying at home longer and relying on some level of financial support from their parents well into adulthood. 

But for some, that support comes with too many strings attached. Ask yourself, advised Mogel, if the support you’re getting is worth your parents’ constant questioning of your life choices. 

"Do the money, goods and services my parents provide me... buy polite goodwill instead of genuine respect and affection?” asked Mogel rhetorically. And does this support come with “an unspoken but hidebound agenda of acceptable cities, neighborhoods, streets and buildings in which I should live; people I should hang with; style of workout or fitness program that I’m likely to stick with; most flattering style of dress for my body type; type of work I should pursue? Is this a fair exchange?"

Alternately, are you relying on your parents for things you really should be able to handle yourself? If so, says Mogel, start doing what you can, now, and stop using “harmful parenting experiences” as an excuse to not grow, experiment or take risks.   

"Young adults may choose, consciously or unconsciously, to make themselves a living example of the harms of overparenting,” said Mogel. "They remain dependent on their parents -- for money, advice, networking, the washing machine -- yet resent them at the same time, in an adolescent way."

4. You feel incredibly anxious all the time. 

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Seek therapy and consider exploring mindfulness theory. Mindfulness is a style of meditation that emphasizes being present and accepting ourselves just as we are. Practicing mindfulness pays respect to the anxieties and worries of the day, but robs them of their power to control our actions and thoughts. 

"Helicopter parenting means that your parents have communicated to you that without them hovering above you, you’re going to be in a lot of danger,” said Mogel. "So treat the anxiety as a thought, respectfully and neutrally, instead of as a truth on which you need to act."

5. You’re a perfectionist who is obsessed with credentials. 

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Make a liberated, liberating decision. In a tough economy, it makes sense that people want to keep arming themselves with degrees and certifications. But this “credentialing,” which likely started when you were very young, could blind you to choices and activities that will bring you happiness and delight. It could also lead you to apply for law school even though you have no desire to be a lawyer, Mogel quipped.

Adult children of helicopter parents think that every choice they make has to "satisfy the internal transcript pimp that the kids and parents and the school administrators have in their heads,” said Mogel. But what if you made a different choice?  

"Choose to do things that you find compelling or alluring or a tickle, or dare we say, fun,” said Mogel. “Try it, even though it doesn’t fit into the super-narrow path that you and your family have put your heads together to define as the only road to success.” Maybe this means following your heart and choosing that lower-paying career. Maybe this means spending a weekend learning a new craft or skill that isn’t related to work. 

In sum, Mogel's advice to tethered young adults is this: “Put down the phone or gently curl your texting finger into your palm. Invite your confusion or distress to have a seat beside you. Ask yourself if you’re confusing vulnerability with fragility, discomfort with danger, and consider a wider range of options than those within your parents’ zone of comfort or familiarity.”

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