Saturday 10 December 2016

It's time to stop helicopter parenting and let your kids go

As mums and dads all over prepare to wave their kids off to college, how do we avoid "helicopter parenting" our grown up children?

Áilín Quinlan

Published 08/09/2016 | 02:30

Rite of passage: Martin Connolly, 19, is preparing to leave for college in Dublin and leave his mum, Karin, at home in Cloankilty Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney
Rite of passage: Martin Connolly, 19, is preparing to leave for college in Dublin and leave his mum, Karin, at home in Cloankilty Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney
Coming of age: Ali McGraw and Ryan O'Neal star in the 1970 teen film 'Love Story' where they meet as students fending for themselves
Lorelai and Rory have a close, but not too close bond on ‘Gilmore Girls’

Life as a parent is full of transitions - from baby to toddler, child to teenager, and perhaps the most difficult change of all, adolescent to adult. As anyone with children knows, parenting never stops, but how do you know when to stop being a "helicopter" mum or dad, and let them be truly independent?

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All parents worry about what is a really seismic life-change for their offspring as they head off to join this year's 43,000-strong pack of first-year college entrants - but it seems, some are more anxious than others.

My 19-year-old son moves away to start college next week. I'm reasonably apprehensive about this big transition, but I won't be phoning him every morning to check that he's up in time for lectures. Should he receive a grade he's unhappy about, I won't be contacting the college to query the result on his behalf, or even, to lobby for a better one - nor would he expect me to.

His father and I accept that moving away from home to start his engineering course at Cork Institute of Technology is a whole new start for Zach, and that it will be very different to the life he enjoyed as a schoolboy.

His friend Martin Connolly, also 19 will, be leaving home to study engineering in Dublin City University.

"I have my accommodation sorted and I'm looking forward to being away from home," says Martin, from Clonakilty Co Cork.

"I'll have more independence - I'll be doing my own cooking and stuff, so in some ways it'll be different, but I don't mind having to rely on myself - I expect it.

"I'm independent and I'm looking forward to having the freedom to meet new people. It'll be new; it'll be something different," says Martin.

Lorelai and Rory have a close, but not too close bond on ‘Gilmore Girls’
Lorelai and Rory have a close, but not too close bond on ‘Gilmore Girls’

"I really wanted to go to Dublin to meet new people and to try things out for myself. I'll stay in touch with my parents and come home to see them as often as I can. I don't think our relationship will change," he said, adding however, that he thinks that this exciting new stage will probably be good for him and his parents.

Martin's mum Karin will miss him. "I would have liked him to be a bit closer, but Martin's always done his own thing, and he really wanted to move to Dublin. He's always reachable, and he's 19 now.

"You have to leave home and find your own place in life and be independent from your parents, but he knows we're there for him if he needs us, and he's not afraid of trying new things and getting on with a challenge. Martin is an adult now and it's about letting go, but also being available when he needs you."

Many parents are apprehensive, but at the same time, like Karin, they understand the need to gently relax the reins. Yet, some don't. They're so used to the heavily structured environment of the Leaving Certificate cycle with its tradition of strong parental involvement, that they experience difficulty letting go once the child heads to college.

"Support from parents and family is very important - but you need to balance it and know when to step into the foreground, and when to step into the background," cautions Dr Patrick Ryan, director of clinical psychology at the University of Limerick.

A minority of parents become overly concerned, says Dr Claire Bohan, director of student support and development at Dublin City University. For parents who are used to being on top of, or even controlling what their teenager does at second-level, the free-flowing third-level environment can come as a shock, she explains.

"This is a new system that they are not necessarily familiar with. That leads to a huge level of anxiety and a desire to understand by trying to involve themselves in the child's college life," Dr Bohan says, adding that this anxiety can be exacerbated by concerns about the financial implications of academic failure.

"I was asked by one parent whether we'd a texting system in place for parents who wanted to know if their offspring had arrived safely on campus," she says, adding that her office often also gets calls from mums or dads wanting to know if a child is attending their lectures - or asking how they might find out.

Coming of age: Ali McGraw and Ryan O'Neal star in the 1970 teen film 'Love Story' where they meet as students fending for themselves
Coming of age: Ali McGraw and Ryan O'Neal star in the 1970 teen film 'Love Story' where they meet as students fending for themselves

Parents need to understand that it's better to let the first year student find his or her own way around campus, she says, and how a student manages his or her first five weeks at college usually determines their success in year one, she warns: "The sooner you let your child find their feet, the sooner they will do so. If parents can stand back and allow students to navigate their way, they'll find it happens quickly because they're forced to make their own decisions.

Over-parenting at this stage can be counter-productive, Ms Bohan explains - but she adds, parents can inform themselves through reading supplied material, attending college open days and parent talks and using the college website to understand the academic calendar and the examinations schedule.

"There is a role for parents, but you have to inform yourself and you have to know when to step back," she says, adding that at this stage it's better to adopt a more softly softly approach with the student than one of direct questioning.

First year in college offers an increase in personal freedom for students, but they must also assume more responsibility, explains Nóirín Deady, First Year Experience Coordinator at UCC.

So parents should relax the reins a little, and gradually let go, she advises - while keeping a weather eye on how your student is doing.

"In practical terms, this means letting students struggle, allowing them to be disappointed and, when failure occurs, helping them through it. Research suggests that over-parenting is actually associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression," she warns.

A good approach to managing how you handle your child's advent to third level is to think about the kind of adult you want him or her to grow into, and work from there, counsels Marese Bermingham, head of the Student Engagement Office at Cork Institute of Technology.

"We want them to be competent, resilient, thoughtful, thinking and happy," she says.

Remember, she says, it's best to facilitate a student making informed decisions - for example on module selection - by asking your child whether they have read the necessary information - not by reading it yourself and telling them what they should study.

So it seems that while being a third level 'helicopter parent' might help assuage your own feelings of anxiety, it can actually create a sense of helplessness and dependence in the student.

"Encourage them to recognise when he or she needs help and emphasise the need for them to seek out assistance in college. Have a conversation about the expectations around what will happen during the first few months," she suggests, adding that it's a good idea to encourage students to understand that they must take responsibility for their own academic progress, and to ask them well-informed questions.

"Know when to stand back and when to pull forward," she advises.

Irish Independent

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