Advice for Parents

Learn what parents can and cannot do to help their college students and how to avoid becoming a “Helicopter Parent.”

This article was originally published by June 5, 2010.

Parents of college students want to help their children solve problems, but many learn that helping college students can be difficult. Those known as helicopter parents intercede on the behalf of their college students and occasionally cause more problems than they solve. Some seek information about their children only to learn that federal law imposes limits on what can be shared. However, there are things parents can and should do to help.

Helicopter Parents – Who are They?

“Is it possible to be a seemingly fully functioning, educated adult of 18 or 21 or more years and still be under the daily supervision of parents?” This was the question Bradley University’s Mary Ann Manos (2009) posed, and she answered it with “yes.” Their parents are known as Helicopter Parents. Unfortunately, these parents do not seem to understand what they should and should not do to help their children.

Parents want their children to succeed in college, but sometimes their actions backfire.

Most agree that “Helicopter Parents” intend well, but they hover over their children, ready to swoop down at a moment’s notice to solve the problems. Kantrowitz and Tyre (2006) attributed this phenomenon to baby boomer parents who are determined to give their children the best. However, this is not a new phenomenon. They mentioned that when General Douglas MacArthur and Franklin Delano Roosevelt went off to college their mothers followed, moving in close by.

In many cases students ask their parents for help. Hoover and Supiano (2008) reported on research conducted by the University of California that concluded students want more parental involvement, and University of Minnesota’s Margaret Savage contended that when parents get involved they are helpful. Not everyone agrees. A 21 year old student named Emily Langhals (Dempsy, 2009) explained, “If there are still students who have their parents call to fight their battles, the real world is just around the corner, and it’s going to be a harsh wake-up call. You can’t exactly have your parents call the boss because you’re upset that you didn’t get a certain assignment or promotion.”

Some educators contend the problem is getting worse. Hyman and Jacobs (2010) wrote, “But now there are ‘lawn-mower parents’ – parents whose blades actually move across the ground as they try to mow down whatever stands in the way of their child’s success.” “Tank Parents” is another self-explanatory moniker for this group.

Why Students Do not Solve Problems Themselves

Some college students lack problem solving skills and a sense of personal responsibility. During their primary and secondary school years, mom or dad took care of everything, sometimes even the homework. Many did not learn that there were consequences to their actions or their lack of action. According to Kantrowitz and Tyre (2006), their hovering parents don’t allow them to develop self-sufficiency.

There are other reasons. Some students lack the interpersonal skills to confront an instructor. They often fear retribution if they do. Some may not know they have people and resources available to help them solve virtually any problem. Others know about these resources but lack the motivation or self-discipline to use them.

Why Parental Intervention may Make Matters Worse

Parental intervention seldom leads to an outcome the student could not have achieved alone. And most instructors are compassionate to students’ wants and needs, at least until a parent steps in. Hyman and Jacobs (2010) agree. They identified ten reasons why parents should not contact their children’s professors. Their list included the annoyance it creates for professors and the negative image it creates of the student. The student may lose “the pity factor” and be labeled as a child. It may also embarrass the student.

What Parents Cannot Do

Parents cannot demand certain information. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) significantly limits the information faculty and staff can share with parents. Questions like “Is my son showing up for class?” and “Why is my daughter failing?” will not be answered. Confrontational accusations like “My son says you aren’t teaching him anything. Why aren’t you teaching him? What gives?” will garner a response like, “Please have your son see me during my office hours.”

What Parents Can and Should Do

The following are things parents can do to help their children in college and avoid being seen as “helicopter parents.”

Be Empathic – Listen to your child, but don’t attempt to solve the problem.
Remain Objective – Refrain from pouring out sympathy. There are two sides to every story, and your child may not have all the facts. Furthermore, even the most trustworthy children may leave out a fact or two.
Guide and Mentor – Encourage your child solve the problem, and provide advice as needed.
Identify College Resources – Sometimes the best help a parent can provide is to refer the student to the resources available on campus.
Intervene When Absolutely Necessary – When the well-being of the child is compromised or in jeopardy, it is the parent’s obligation to intervene.

The last piece of advice is the most difficult to follow. “Absolutely necessity” is hard to define. Issues of physical and psychological well-being would normally qualify. But even in these cases, start with the parent liaison if the college has one. Otherwise contact a counselor.

Hay House, Inc.

There is a right way and a wrong way for parents to help their children in college solve problems. “Helicopter Parents” do it the wrong way, through intervention that is often counterproductive. Supportive, caring parents can and should help their children solve their own problems.


Dempsey, Eileen. “Helicopter Parents.” Ohio State Alumni Magazine, October 8, 2009.

Hoover, Eric; Supiano, Beckie. “Surveys of Students Challenge ‘Helicopter Parent’ Stereotypes.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/1/2008, Vol. 54 Issue 21.

Hyman, Jeremy & Jacobs, Lynne F. “10 Reasons Parents Should Never Contact College Professors.” US News & World May 12, 2010. (Accessed June 4, 2010).

Kantrowitz, Barbara & Tyre, Peg. “The Fine Art of Letting Go.” Newsweek, May 22, 2006.

Manos, Mary Ann. “Helicopter Parents: Empathic or Pathetic?” Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Fall 2009, Vol. 89 Issue 3.

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