Link copied to clipboard

Your child is away at college. You find out she’s being distracted by her roommate’s habits or she’s being frustrated by an instructor’s teaching style. She complains to you, often. What do you do?

For a lot of parents these days, their first impulse is to pick up the phone and call the Dean or the instructor to complain. College presidents report that parents increasingly try to step in and make things all-better for their college-age children, just as they might have done when their kids were in first grade. But this is a huge mistake. A recent study reports that college students whose parents are more intrusive on their behalf are actually more depressed and feel less capable of handling college than students whose parents let them fight their own battles.

In the study, nearly 300 students attending a public liberal arts college in the Mid-Atlantic region were asked about their parents’ involvement and level of control over their lives and also about their own feelings of autonomy, overall life satisfaction, and levels of depression and anxiety. Just over half of the students were freshmen, and the others evenly distributed among sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Researchers found that students who reported feeling their parents were more intrusive and hands-on in their lives had higher levels of depression and anxiety and lower levels of autonomy and life satisfaction. Helicopter parenting was backfiring for these students. Happier, more successful students had parents who knew how to butt out.

Certainly, college students are under a lot of stress and need their families’ support. That’s why they call home to complain: because they need somewhere to vent and they need to know they’re not entirely crazy in seeing a situation as intolerable. They call home to get advice. But college students don’t call home as if they were calling in the National Guard. They’re not asking you to fight for them. College students need to fight for themselves.

Of course, if you’ve spent your child’s teen years coming to his rescue so that he thinks of you as his secret weapon and thinks of himself as unable to manage his own affairs, then it’s logical he continue to call on you from college when the going gets tough. But it might be that parents are most involved in the lives of students who actually need more support and who seem to be least capable of managing their own affairs. The arrow of causality could go either way. Do parents hover because their child is vulnerable or do children feel vulnerable because their parents seem so worried about their abilities?

If your student is away at college, it’s not too late to shift how you respond when he calls to complain. If your student is not yet at college, now is the time to start to remove the scaffolding you’ve been using to prop him up. Here’s what to do, in either case.

  1. Express sympathy without taking over. Everyone needs to talk through their problems but most of us don’t want someone else to solve our problems for us. Step back from your role as your child’s fixer.  Just listen and nod and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry this is happening.”
  2. Treat your child like a responsible adult. Ask what she’s going to do about the problem or what she’s already tried. Let her take responsibility for solving things herself. Help her talk things through and think out loud in your presence without taking her problems onto your own shoulders.
  3. Wait for your child to ask for your advice. If he doesn’t ask, don’t make any suggestions. If he does ask, then phrase your advice as an I-message. Avoid saying “You should do…” but say, “If it were me, I might do…” Keep things conversational. Your child should be able to examine your plan if this were happening to you and decide for himself if your way fits him and his situation.
  4. Never call the school. Even if your child asks you to call her professor’s department head, don’t do it. If your child is 18 or older, no one at the school can legally discuss your child’s work, grades, athletic participation, health, or punishments with anyone but your child. Don’t increase your own frustration: don’t make the call.

Learning to stand up for oneself and take responsibility for one’s actions (and inactions) is an important rite of passage for teens and college students. Remember that your job as parent is to raise your child into a capable adult, ready to manage his own life.

You don’t want your child to continue to live in your spare bedroom, too afraid to step out on his own.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at