When my daughter was starting college, we discussed the problem of helicopter parents with the college dean. He said one mother came in daily to clean her son’s dorm room, take his clothes to wash, and return with them the next day. I don’t like labeling parents, but in this case, I could hear the propellers of the helicopter hovering over the campus.
Labeling, whether this be helicopter parents or entitled young adults, isn’t helpful. It doesn’t promote constructive dialogue between the generations. But it’s my experience and perception that parents, including my wife and I, do much more for our young adults than our parents did for us when we were kids. In a Pew Research Survey, 64% of Americans indicated that parents do too much for their kids. The problem is collusion between parents and young adults in that parents do too much, and young adults expect too much. It’s a bit of the chicken and egg sequence.
When my daughter was in college in her first year and couldn’t get dinner because the dining hall was closed when she got there, she called me. She explained the situation and then made an outrageous request. “Dad, can you bring a sandwich over to me?” After almost having a seizure laughing so hard, I picked myself off the floor and told her – no sandwich, not in this lifetime. Afterward, I wondered what messages I had sent her over the years that would lead her to think I would drive a sandwich over to her?
Can You Overdo Love?
I strongly encourage parents to show unconditional love and invest in the relationship with the young adult as a prerequisite to an effective launch. But it’s hard to know when you are doing too much. Can you overdo love? It depends on how you define love and the actions that reflect it. We have become more invested in our children’s success, starting at an early age, and although we supply them with all the necessities to succeed, it also creates pressure on the child or young adult and the parent. The young adult feels a need to achieve for their parents’ sake, and the parents feel a need for their child to succeed so they can feel like good parents. As a result of this drive, which is not in many cases an expression of love as much as it is a need of the parent, a parent may over-parent.
According to an article in the Journal of Emerging Adulthood (Volume 10 Number 2 October 2022. p1076) overparenting “refers to parenting behavior that shows over-involvement and over-control in the lives of emerging adults.” The authors of this article cited research that over-parenting can tend to discourage independence and critical skill attainment and subsequently lead to depressive and anxious symptoms, greater alcohol use, lower educational achievements, and more social and relational issues. They do acknowledge that the findings are sometimes consistent. They systematically reviewed the many quantitative studies done between 2002 and 2021 on overparenting. They concluded that over-parenting, with few exceptions, was correlated with certain negative consequences for emerging adults – psychological, behavioral, social/relational, learning/academic, and career domains.
It’s Never Too Late
Some of you who read this and have given so much time, effort, and emotion to raise your child into a young adult may wonder if you overdid it or if it’s too late to reverse course. My answer is it’s never too late, or I would quit my job of coaching parents. But if you are struggling with the launch of a young adult and have over-parented, it’s essential to make some changes in your parenting. Some parents may conclude they have been too over-involved and back off in ways that might not be helpful and may cause confusion in the young adult. If you have always done things for your young adult – laundry, meals, car, spending money, etc. and you just quit one day, that could be a problem. But pulling back on such acts of love is appropriate so that you create the opportunity for your young adult to step up. And the change needs to be communicated in that way – I love you and want you to become more independent, so I am turning over various responsibilities to you.” love is not always saying yes, and maybe our over-parenting has been just that- too many yeses. Saying “no” is as much an act of love when it facilitates the young person becoming more independent as saying yes to help them out.
In the book I am submitting to publication – The Launch Code: Loving and Letting go of Our Adult Children – a parent must ask themselves three questions when trying to balance the yes and no of parenting.
- Am I acting out of love, not fear, anxiety, frustration, guilt, etc.?
- Am I acting in line with my values and principles- honesty, responsibility, trustworthiness, dependability, etc.?
- Are my actions likely to contribute to greater independence or dependency of my young adult?