BOSTON – Overly protective parents might be leaving a lasting impact on their child's personality, and not in a good way, a new study finds.
The results show having so-called "helicopter parents" was associated with being dependent, neurotic and less open, a slew of personality traits that are generally thought of as undesirable.
The study, which surveyed college freshman, is one of the first to try to define exactly what helicopter parenting is, and measure it. The term was originally coined by college admissions personnel when they started to notice a change in parents of prospective students — parents would call the admissions office and try to intervene in a process that had previously just been between the student and the college, said study researcher Neil Montgomery, a psychologist at Keene State College in N.H.
While the findings are only preliminary, and more studies are needed to back up the results, they suggest this type of over-parenting might lead to children who are ultimately not ready to leave the nest.
"I think what the helicopter parents did is they decided, 'OK we know what good parenting looks like, we're just going to ratchet it up to a new level, and our kids are going to be even better,'" Montgomery said. "The problem is, when they ratcheted it up, they went too far, and in fact, caused an expansion of childhood or adolescence."
Hovering parents, neurotic children
Montgomery and his colleagues surveyed about 300 freshmen with a questionnaire the researchers specifically designed to assess helicopter parenting. They focused was on college students, because college is a "crisis point" in the relationship between the helicopter parent and the child, Montgomery said. At this stage, the parents no longer have control over their child's life and can't keep track of them like in the past.
Participants had to rate their level of agreement with statements such as, "My parents have contacted a school official on my behalf to solve problems for me," "On my college move-in day, my parents stayed the night in town to make sure I was adjusted," and "If two days go by without contact my parents would contact me."
About 10 percent of the participants had helicopter parents. The rate was higher in girls than in boys, with 13 percent of the females being helicoptered compared with just 5 percent of males. And it was mainly mothers doing the hovering, Montgomery said.
Students with helicopter parents tended to be less open to new ideas and actions, as well as more vulnerable, anxious and self-consciousness, among other factors, compared with their counterparts with more distant parents.
"We have a person who is dependent, who is vulnerable, who is self-conscious, who is anxious, who is impulsive, not open to new actions or ideas; is that going to make a successful college student?" Montgomery said. "No not exactly, it's really a horrible story at the end of the day."
On the other hand, in non-helicoptered students who were given responsibility and not constantly monitored by their parents, so-called "free rangers" the effects were reversed, Montgomery said.
Montgomery notes that the findings only show an association, and not a direct cause-effect link, meaning all children with helicopter parents don't necessarily turn out this way. However, he thinks the research should encourage parents to think about what they are doing as they raise their children, and be aware that there is such a thing as over-parenting.
He hopes the work leads to more research in the area, including large studies on different populations of children, such as high-school and middle-school students. Future studies will hopefully bring about a clearer picture of helicopter parenting, Montgomery said.
"People keep talking about it like everyone knows what it is," Montgomery said. "And it's not clear that anyone really knows what it is, other than the people they know personally who are doing these things."
The results were presented May 29 at the Association of Psychological Science Convention in Boston.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.