Helicopter Parenting: Little Study, Big Soundbites

The media has been full lately with discussions and advice about the merits of different types of parenting (see previous blog posting of June 2012: Tiger-Attachment-Ferberization Parenting).  Adding further to the debate is a recent study by Schiffrin and colleagues from the Journal of Child and Family Studies regarding a more intrusive and controlling parenting style, also known as helicopter parenting.

The subjects of the study were 297 college students (88% women) who completed very brief questionnaires regarding their current mental health and life satisfaction and their perceptions of the way they were parented.  The authors developed their own measure of helicopter versus autonomy-supported parenting (specifically mothering) that the students completed regarding CURRENT parenting behavior.  Path analyses were used to test for significant associations and the hypothesis that the associations between helicopter parenting and negative outcomes were due to feelings of reduced autonomy.Helicopter

The results indicated that subjects who reported having more overcontrolling parents manifested significantly higher depression scores (although they were not clinically depressed) and lower scores on life satisfaction.  This effect appeared to be mediated through the subjects’ feeling that their developmental needs for autonomy and independence were not met adequately.

The authors concluded that excessively high levels of parental monitoring and control are related to negative child behavior and lower life satisfaction. They interpreted their results in the context of self-determination theory which posits that individuals have innate needs for autonomy, feeling competent, and being involved in caring relationships. However, they acknowledged that their data were cross-sectional and thus they could not be sure that more helicopter-style parenting was a result rather than a cause of more depressed children.

While this is certainly an interesting study worthy of discussion, the article received an usually high degree of media coverage for a study that essentially gave college students several questionnaires at a single point in time. This attention was due to the timeliness of the topic.  Indeed, the way this study was portrayed in the media is as much of the story as the study itself, in my view.  Many summaries of the article, such as what appeared in Time magazine,  featured a picture of a much younger child. Obvious flaws in the study were rarely discussed except, ironically, by the authors themselves. Questions about nonlinear relations between supervision and child outcomes (in other words, maybe there is a bell shaped curve rather than a line in the relations between monitoring and child health) or about different levels of supervision needed at different developmental levels were absent. Patients and family members often are influenced by these quick media summaries of scientific articles, and it is important for clinicians to help educate others not only about the findings of a study, but also its limitations.

Reference

Schiffrin H, et al.  (2013) Helping or hovering? The effect of helicopter parenting on college student’s well being.  J Child Fam Studies.  Published online in Feb, 2013.

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3 Responses to “Helicopter Parenting: Little Study, Big Soundbites”

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