Helping or Helicoptering? The Effect of Parenting on College-Age Anxiety

By: Rhea Basu

The Pitch

If there’s one thing that parents can agree on, it’s that the world today can feel like a very scary place. Parents, you probably feel anxious every time you come home from work, turn on the six o’clock news, and hear about the various assaults, kidnappings, and murders that seem to be all too common nowadays. You draw your child closer to your chest and silently vow that you’ll keep them safe, no matter the cost. But what if that cost was your child’s mental health?

That’s what Allan Richarz suggests in his opinion piece in the CBC, a response to the story of B.C. single-father Adrian Crook who recently got a stern warning from B.C.’s Ministry of Child and Family Development for allowing four of his children, aged seven to eleven, to take the forty-five minute commute to school on the public bus without an adult. While some of you may be shaking your head at Crook’s parenting, Richarz defends him. He argues that using an overprotective parenting style, dubbed “helicopter” parenting, robs children of crucial learning experiences and leaves them feeling deeply anxious and helpless as adults.

So how do we protect our kids? Richarz uses the falling crime rate as proof that we don’t need to coddle our children anymore, but is that really true? Are there new dangers to our children that aren’t reflected in the statistics? How do we defend our children from those? Is there a need to shelter our children, or are we smothering them? Will our children become a generation of anxious adults? Will it be our fault? How do we give our children positive learning experiences that bolster their confidence without putting them in danger?

Being told to step back for the benefit of your child seems counterintuitive, like being told to remove all the baby-proof rubber corners from your glass coffee table. One might be tempted to brush off Allan Richarz’ opinion piece entirely, yet there’s a nugget of truth in it that can’t be ignored: anxiety in young adults is rising, in both prevalence and severity. So what’s the story? What - or who - is causing this anxiety? Let’s find out.

 

Learn More

"Helicopter Parents Stir up Anxiety, Depression"

“‘Helicopter Parents’ Stir up Anxiety, Depression.” IU News Room, Indiana University, 2013, newsinfo.iu.edu/web/page/normal/6073.html.

This is a secondary source from the Indiana University newsletter, which summarizes the findings of psychologist Chris Meno regarding helicopter parents and students' mental health. In this article, "helicopter parent" is defined in greater detail, using examples of behaviour that is common in cases of helicopter parenting. Meno identifies the cell phone as an aggravator of the anxiety because children are often quick to call their parents to ask for a solution rather than being forced to solve something themselves and learn independence. He tries to treat the effects of helicopter parenting by asking students not to call their parents right away - to deliberate options first and develop critical thinking skills. One thing that was interesting that I noted from this article was that Meno felt that today's headlines (regarding crime, accidents, poverty) is what's causing parents to become helicopter parents. As I continue to do my research, I want to investigate whether or not these headlines reflect the true safety of the nation.


"Canadians' perceptions of safety and crime, 2014"

Canada, Government of Canada Statistics. “Canadians' Perceptions of Personal Safety and Crime, 2014.” Statistics Canada, Government of Canada, 12 Dec. 2017, www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/171212/dq171212b-eng.htm.

This is a primary source taken from Statistics Canada. In the original opinion article, the author makes a claim that crime in Canada has been on the decline for the past two decades. This resource from Statistics Canada corroborated this. Crime, which is defined as all offences under the Criminal Code of Canada save for traffic offences, has declined significantly. However, 74% of Canadians believe that crime in their neighbourhoods has not declined, and less than 10% of Canadians believe that crime has declined. Statistics Canada noted that the higher the population of a city was, the less secure the residents felt - and not just because of crime, but also because of social disorders (such as homelessness). Women and immigrants were particularly prone to feeling anxiety, especially when walking alone or in the dark. Finally, people who reported having positive relationships with their law enforcement also reported feeling safer than those who did not.


"Police-reported crime statistics in Canada, 2014"

Canada, Government of Canada Statistics. “Police-Reported Crime Statistics in Canada, 2014.” Statistics Canada, Government of Canada, 30 Nov. 2015, www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/2015001/article/14211-eng.htm.

This source is another primary source from Statistics Canada. I wanted to venture deeper into the initial claim in the op-ed that crime in Canada was on the decline. This source verified what the author and the other source claimed - that crime, in general, was on the decline in Canada. The Crime Severity Index (or CSI) for Canada had decreased, with a decline in breaking and entering, and robbery accounting for this drop. In terms of violent crime, that had also declined in general - but I found something here of interest to me: extortion, sexual violence against children, and abduction all saw an increase in frequency. This is incredibly relevant to my podcast because if children are truly in greater danger, then it would be foolish to report otherwise just because of a general downward trend. As this data is four years old, something I intend to do is find more recent statistics, if at all possible.


"Child and Family Services Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. C.11"

“Child and Family Services Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. C.11.” Ontario.ca, Government of Ontario, 13 Apr. 2015, www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/90c11#BK135.

This source is a primary source taken from the Government from Ontario's website, specifically the section that contains all the laws. The specific act that I've cited is the "Child and Family Services Act," which was last amended in 2017. According to Section 79(3), the part of the Act that is relevant to the opinion article, any parent or guardian in charge of a child under sixteen years old can leave that child alone without having made arrangements for supervision that are appropriate to the circumstances. Failure to do so could result in a child protection hearing. The Child and Family Services Act was important for me since the majority of Canadians live in Ontario and therefore this Act impacts the majority of children and parents in Canada. In addition, the minimum age is the highest age of the provinces, which is noted in the original opinion piece.


"Anxiety Disorders"

“Anxiety Disorders.” Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2012, www.camh.ca/en/hospital/health_information/a_z_mental_health_and_addiction_information/anxiety_disorders/Pages/Anxiety_Disorders.aspx.

Switching gears, this source is a secondary source from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health regarding anxiety disorders, symptoms, and suggestions on how to live with it. This source notes that anxiety is an umbrella term for a series of various other anxiety disorders, but all of them share the same hallmarks. These common traits are irrational and excessive fear, being apprehensive or feeling tense, and having difficulty or distress when it comes to managing daily tasks. Symptoms included anxious thoughts, predictions, beliefs, avoidance of situations that could trigger anxiety, safety or coping mechanisms (like always carrying a cell phone), and excessive physical reactions to anxiety (sweating, dizziness, loss of breath). It was important for me to get a better understanding of anxiety as some parents often brush it off as just being worried when it runs deeper than that, and I wanted my podcast to reflect how serious this growing trend of college-age anxiety was.


"Ability to handle stress"

Statistics Canada. “Ability to Handle Stress and Sources of Stress, Canada.” Statistics Canada, Statistics Canada, 2016, www5.statcan.gc.ca/cansim/a26?lang=eng&retrLang=eng&id=1050510&pattern=&csid=.

This table, a primary source taken from Statistics Canada, demonstrates how certain age groups manage stress. The age groups that I focused on were 12-17 year olds and 35-49 year olds (where I presumed the majority of the parents of the former group would be). The table listed how Canadians ranked themselves in terms of ability to handle unexpected problems, balance their lives, as well as to self-identify the areas in their life that cause them the greatest amount of stress. From the data, I learned that 26% of teenagers aged 12-17 don't feel confident in their ability to handle unexpected problems. This compares with their parents' generation, where only 18% of adults that age feel the same. 63% of the 12-17 year old demographic listed school and academics as their biggest source of stress, whereas the 35-49 year old demographic felt as though work (32%) or finances (23%) was their biggest stressor. This table was interesting to me as I did notice a significant amount of young people felt less equipped to handle problems, which the author of the original opinion piece attributed to an increase in the trend of helicopter parenting.


"Cyber Related Crime"

Statistics Canada. “Police-Reported Cybercrime, by Cyber-Related Violation, Canada.”Statistics Canada, Statistics Canada, 11 Nov. 2017, www5.statcan.gc.ca/cansim/a26?lang=eng&retrLang=eng&id=2520095&&pattern=&stByVal=1&p1=1&p2=31&tabMode=dataTable&csid=#F8.

This is a primary source from Statistics Canada, where I analyzed the rise of cyber crime. This was an avenue I wanted to explore as a lot of parents who are keeping their child "indoors" and out of harm let them use the internet, often unsupervised. The source touched on cyber-crime that had been reported by the police, where crime is defined by any offence as written under the Criminal Code of Canada. From this source, I learned that between 2014-2016, the crime of luring a child via a computer was reported 20% more than before. Despite a 35% decrease in the charge of child pornography, there were 2,886 counts of making or distribution of child pornography, which was a drastic increase from 0 reported counts in 2014. Finally, extortion saw an 81% increase, from 441 counts to 797. 


"No, helicopter parents aren’t ruining kids after all"

Strauss, Valerie. “No, Helicopter Parents Aren’t Ruining Kids after All.” Washington Post, Washington Post, 4 Sept. 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/04/no-helicopter-parents-arent-ruining-kids-after-all/?utm_term.

This source is a secondary source from the Washington Post. This is an opinion piece written by Valerie Strauss, who argues that helicopter parenting isn't what's causing anxiety and extreme dependence in young adults. Strauss cites a study called the National Survey of Student Engagement, which surveyed over 9000 kids at 24 different universities. From that survey, only 13% of freshmen said that they had a parent frequently intervene to help them solve problems. In addition, Strauss questions whether or not anxiety is caused by helicopter parenting. She suggests that perhaps parents pick up on their child's emotional distress and tend to stay close in order to provide the support the child needs. Finally, she mentions that modern society conflates maturity and self-sufficiency. She argues that this expectation that students be independent is why there's so few resources on campus, therefore of course parents should be allowed to step in and help. Valerie Strauss's opinion piece treats the negative effects helicopter parenting very skeptically.


“I will guide you” The indirect link between overparenting and young adults' adjustment

Rousseau, Sofie, and Miri Scharf. “‘I Will Guide You’ The Indirect Link between Overparenting and Young Adults' Adjustment.” Psychiatry Research, vol. 228, no. 3, 2015, pp. 826–834., doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2015.05.016.

In this source, which is an article from the Psychiatry Research Journal, analyzed the link between overparenting (another term for helicopter parenting) and the adjustment of young adult children. The article found that there was a link between overbearing parents and psychopathological problems in their offspring. While there was an undeniable trend of psychological distress in children who reported being overparented, the article did not confirm or deny if this was causation at play, or merely correlation. The study was interesting because it found that overbearing fathers tended to cause greater psychopathological problems than overbearing mothers. At the end, it made two distinct recommendations. The first recommendation was not surprising to me - it was that any psychologist or therapist dealing with a young adult ought to investigate their upbringing and treat them for possible negative effects left by overparenting. The second recommendation came as a surprise to me. The study claimed that the parents who were guilty of "overparenting" were more likely to be suffering from regrets about their own lives or current marital problems. As a result of their own insecurities, they were more likely to micromanage the lives of their young adult children. Therefore the recommendation that was made was to treat the parents in order to get them to accept their own shortcomings so they would stop projecting onto their children. 


Black hawk down?: Establishing helicopter parenting as a distinct construct from other forms of parental control during emerging adulthood

Padilla-Walker, Laura M., and Larry J. Nelson. “Black Hawk down?: Establishing Helicopter Parenting as a Distinct Construct from Other Forms of Parental Control during Emerging Adulthood.” Journal of Adolescence, vol. 35, no. 5, 2012, pp. 1177–1190., doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2012.03.007.

This article is from the journal Journal of Adolescence. It claims to be one of the first studies that truly examine the notion of "helicopter parenting". The article and the research within it successfully distinguishes helicopter parenting from other parenting styles such as behavioural control and psychological control, the reason being the effects that each has on a child. Behavioural control and psychological control has been proven to have directly destructive effects on a child, whereas helicopter parenting works to stifle or stunt the growth of a child so that the true damage is only revealed when the child is entering adulthood and finds himself or herself struggling to be independent. This point about the damage of helicopter parenting also provides the framework which connects this form of "intrusive parenting" to problematic development in developing adults. This article, which was published three years before the other article, links helicopter parenting to parental separation anxiety or social anxiety (parents being worried about how the behaviour of their child reflects on them). However, this article does not cite any evidence that directly ties helicopter parenting to parental separation anxiety or social anxiety.