Nobody is Happy When a Helicopter is Hovering Over Their Head!

By Scott Keith


So, I’ll admit it, this is sort of a hobby horse for me. If you’re tired of the topic, you may just want to move along and wait for Dan’s blog this afternoon; I’m sure it will be entertaining. But I am more and more convinced that parents, specifically helicopter and snowplow parents, are absolutely destroying an entire generation of people. I would also like to head off at the pass all of you who will say, “there’s nothing new under the sun,” and “it’s always been bad.” If you are one of those who cannot resist dismissing the jeremiad that is to follow, please read this article from The Art of Manliness first.

Helicopter Parents are sending their children into a downward spiral of bleak despair, and it’s getting worse. What is a Helicopter Parent? A helicopter parent is a parent who pays extremely close attention to a child’s or children’s experiences and problems, particularly their educational pursuits. Helicopter parents are so named because they hover over their children’s head like a freaking helicopter. As we here at the university prepare for move in day and the first day of class, I have been experiencing the gusty storm of buffeting winds that result from their intense fixation on supplying the perfect experience for their children. In other words, they simply won’t leave any of us alone. Now, if I feel this way having only interacted with their fixation occasionally, I can only imagine how overwhelmed their children feel. I am not happy when they micromanage my every thought, move, and decision, and I would bet their children are even less happy than I am.

So what does the data say? Those of us who work in Higher Education knew something was amiss in 2013 when it seemed that the instances of mental health crisis jumped dramatically, but I’m not sure even we knew how bad it was. That same year, a national survey of college counseling center directors was implemented. A stunning 95 percent said the number of students with significant psychological problems is a constant concern on college campuses. Another 70 percent said that the number of students on their campus with severe psychological problems has increased in the past year. They also reported that 24.5 percent of their student clients were taking psychotropic drugs. That is approximately 1/3 of all college students!


Again, in that same year the American College Health Association conducted a survey of more than 100,000 college students attending 153 different institutions. The survey questioned them regarding their mental health, among other things, over the last 12 months. (If you want to be really depressed, read the entire survey to discover fun facts regarding drug and alcohol use and abuse, as well as sexual activities among college students!) This is what they said:

  • Felt things were hopeless = 46.5%
  • Felt overwhelmed by all you had to do = 84.3%
  • Felt exhausted (not from physical activity) = 79.1%
  • Felt very lonely = 57%
  • Felt very sad = 60.5%
  • Felt so depressed that it was difficult to function = 31.8%
  • Felt overwhelming anxiety = 51.3%
  • Felt overwhelming anger = 38.3%
  • Attempted suicide = 1.6%
  • Intentionally cut, burned, bruised, or otherwise injured yourself = 6.5%

This movement is apparently not an isolated phenomenon. The 153 schools surveyed were located in all 50 states, which included both small liberal arts institutions and large R1 research universities. And for those of you who think this is a secular problem, no luck. The survey included religious (Christian) institutions as well as secular schools.

So why are these young adults in a bad state? I have postulated in the past that it may, at least in part, be due to the deleterious influence of their parent’s high demands and constant badgering. For me, this was a shoot from the hip answer to a serious observation and nagging question I’ve had since arriving at the university four years ago. Now, it seems that the “kids” (really, young adults) are saying it themselves.

In 2012, the Journal of Adolescence surveyed nearly 500 young adults. That survey found that: “initial evidence for this form of intrusive parenting is being linked to problematic development in emerging adulthood … by limiting opportunities for emerging adults to practice and develop important skills needed for becoming self-reliant adults.”

So let me put this into plain language for you. Children, all children, need to learn independently. They need to try and succeed, but they also learn when they try and fail. In fact, this is primarily how they develop coping mechanisms and resiliency. Our fear of failure as parents, when it is superimposed on or transferred to our children, often means that parents do whatever is needed to make sure their children NEVER fail. Parents then push their children, their children’s teachers, school administrators, school boards, and institutional leadership to ensure that their lovely little Johnny or Susie succeeds and never faces the sting of failure or harm. But the truth is, no matter how annoying and protective parents are, at some time or another their children will fail, they will get hurt, and they, God forbid, will do something wrong.


The truth is that they, like we, are poor miserable sinners living in a world that is also plagued by sin. No amount of misguided overbearing protectiveness will prevent them from sinning, failing, or the world around them from occasionally falling in on them. If parents fail to teach their children this reality, they will simply be left to figuring it out on their own when they are all alone at college. They will feel lied to and betrayed by the people that are supposed to love them the most. They may even feel that without the constant help of the helicopter or the snow plow (my fun names for mom and dad) they will never be able to accomplish anything, not even a “C” on a Western Civilizations I exam. Try to imagine the despair that might result if you were successful all of your life, and then once on your own for the first time, feel like you fail at everything you try. The realization that it was never really you succeeding, but rather your parents succeeding through you, might literally be overwhelming. You may even feel like: “things were hopeless, overwhelmed by all you had to do, exhausted, very lonely, very sad, so depressed that it was difficult to function, overwhelmingly anxious, overwhelmingly mad.” Heck, you may even try to harm yourself.

Children need to learn a sense of freedom early. When they fail, forgive them, pick them up, dust them off, and set them on the right path again. Try to be a resource and not a burden. Try to help them shovel the obstacles from their path, but don’t plow those obstacles out of the way. Rather, if you can, buy them the shovel when it is appropriate and tell them you are proud of them when they’ve attempted to remove the obstacles themselves. I don’t think love means preparing children for a life of misguided achievement and dependence, rather, I think love means preparing children to be free to succeed and fail. Love is shown more in forgiveness, mercy, and grace than in misguided hovering. But who knows, I could be wrong; maybe you should ask your children.