Kids of 'helicopter parents' may encounter problems on their own

Published May 3, 2012

More than once, I've heard parents heave a sigh of relief once their children graduate from high school. They figure the heavy lifting of parenting is behind them and now they can enjoy the wonderful young adults they've worked so hard to raise.

If that sounds like you, you might want to buckle your seat belt. This could get bumpy.

A client I'll call Betty expressed shock during her counseling session over the changes she has witnessed in her 20-year-old son, her one-time "perfect child.''

"He quit college because he said he could not cut it. He moved back home into his old bedroom, and won't even try to find a job."

Like many parents I meet clinically, Betty reported that he had an "idyllic childhood.'' She poured her time and energy carting him from one lesson or practice to another, making sure that his report card was full of A's and his free time was full of trophy-winning sports.

A large number of youth have grown up with parents who invested more effort and money in their upbringing than any prior generation. Hovered over by well-meaning "helicopter parents,'' some of these young people have thrived, but others have emerged burdened with feelings of inadequacy, often confusing permissiveness with love. Limits and boundaries prove to be especially challenging for them. The word "no" or a well-deserved "C" or "D" on a school paper can invoke a preadolescent response and parental involvement. Sons and daughters trained from birth not only to question authority, but also to run over or around it, are left struggling as they leave the safe nest of home.

A pervasive sense of entitlement can make it difficult to commit to a job, school, or even a relationship. The art of commitment requires self-discipline and perseverance. But these hallmarks of healthy adolescent development may be absent among youth raised to expect privileges they have not earned.

Keeping a job, completing college and launching independent lives can seem like insurmountable obstacles for these young people, particularly given the grim state of today's economy. In fact, this generation is predicted to earn less over their lifetimes and may even have shorter lives due to epidemic rates of obesity and associated diseases.

As the Roper Youth Report recently declared, "The gap between what they have and what they want has never been greater."

And remember, this is the first generation to be raised with email, texting, Facebook, and other such socially defining technology. We don't yet know the long-term effects of this tech saturation. Though skilled at handling technological changes, might they be less adept at navigating face-to-face emotional intimacy? Though more embracing of racial and ethnic diversity than any generation before them, will they have shorter emotional fuses, unable to handle frustration?

Betty and I talked about reasonable expectations for her adult son while also constructing healthy boundaries for both of them. We explored the differences between rescuing and empowering while she grappled with guilt. "What does he need to learn and what message am I sending if I step in," she asked herself.

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Her son found work at a restaurant and moved out on his own. It wasn't his mother's college dream for him, but it was independence.

It is never too late for parents to step back and give their children ample room to experience themselves and their choices. Lullabies of "Aren't you special" won't foster healthy, well-balanced youth. Honest achievement, hard work and ongoing effort, mixed in with what should be inevitable disappointments build resilient, healthy young people who will grow into happy, strong adults. And, we hope, will come home to teach us how to program the DVR and use our new phones.

Barbara Rhode is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. Petersburg. For information on her May 24 workshop for parents and professionals, "Building Resilient Youth,'' contact her at (727) 418-7882 .