By Dr. Grace Francis
Alice Johnson and her family were thrilled when she was accepted into a postsecondary education program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (PSE) at a big college campus about 50 miles away from her home. Alice’s first few weeks on campus, unfortunately, proved to be extremely stressful for the Johnson family. Alice experienced a difficult time adjusting to living without her family, with a roommate who was a stranger to her and whose behavior sometimes made her uncomfortable. She felt extremely uneasy navigating a large campus with so many people and did not know how to get help. Alice called her parents several times a day in tears, upset, lonely, bored, and confused. Alice’s parents, who had been so excited about this opportunity for Alice, were exhausted, anxious, and utterly despondent.
Alice’s parents had been tirelessly advocating for Alice’s well-being for the past 19 years, and they didn’t stop when she enrolled in college. They encouraged Alice to contact her teachers and the director of residential life to resolve some of her problems, and were unsure if she was not following through or if staff were just unresponsive to her needs. They spoke with the PSE director several times to discuss needed accommodations and social concerns, but were dismayed by the director’s resolute expectations for Alice to resolve her problems independently by using university resources. They felt ignored and shamed. They also left several messages for the director of residential life to try to resolve the issues with her roommate and felt extremely frustrated when they finally received a call back stating that “FERPA prevents us from discussing student matters with parents.” They have decided to bring Alice home during weekends to avoid some of the issues and, despite the benefits they think Alice would experience by staying, are about to withdraw Alice from the program.
Most people are familiar with the term “helicopter parent,” or parents who are overprotective and over-involved in their child’s life. There is emerging research indicating negative outcomes associated with helicopter parenting, including increased levels of depression, as well as disrupted self-regulation and decision-making skills among children (Schiffrin et al., 2013). Sending children to college can bring out the “helicopter” in many parents, as students are granted with the autonomy to make independent decisions, in many cases, for the first time. For all young adults, college is a time of profound uncertainty and magnificent growth. It is a time when students begin to solidify their identities as adults by transitioning from being a dependent to a self-advocate. As such, it is also a time when parents of college students must transition from caregivers to advisors for their sons and daughters. These transitions are difficult, especially for parents whose college-bound students have disabilities.
There is no doubt that the expectations for students and parents are drastically different in college when compared to high school. The dramatic changes in roles, policies, rights, and responsibilities of students and their parents often leave parents uncertain of how to support their college student, leading to frustration and anxiety – especially among parents of students with disabilities who may have had fewer independent decision-making experiences or may be perceived as vulnerable. Further, parents of students with disabilities have often spent decades protecting, supporting, and advocating for their children. These negative feelings can lead to hyper-vigilance among parents. One parent of a college student with a disability described the experience of her son with autism going to college as “someone filling her mama helicopter with nitrous fuel.” While helicopter parenting may be damaging, university staff can direct parental commitment to their children’s success toward efforts that will maximize student outcomes.
The value of parental input and emotional needs of parents are significantly overlooked in college settings for all students, not just those who have disabilities. While parents should never be ignored or shamed, allowing hyper-vigilant parents to stymie the development of all students is an unacceptable course of action. All parents would likely benefit from strategies to engage their students in supported decision-making as well coping strategies to deal with anxiety and stress. Decision-making and coping strategies could be provided through parent workshops during university orientations and through ongoing methods such as online follow-up sessions or parent meet-up groups. PSE staff could provide additional support to parents of students in PSE programs by collaborating with university departments and research centers (e.g., counseling department, center for wellness and mindfulness), community partners (e.g. parent training and information centers), and even alumni parents with experience transitioning from a caregiver to an advisor for their children to provide information and support to parents (and students) about effective strategies.
The experiences of the Johnson family are not unique. Parenting is hard (turns out way harder than I gave my parents credit for!). Navigating the rough waters of young adulthood is as exciting as it is uncertain. Given the amount of resources and focus on student development and professional stewardship at institutions of higher education, there exists a great opportunity to reconsider efforts to “ground the helicopter parent,” “tame the tiger mom,” and “cut the umbilical cord,” by making the most of the investment and desire of parents to see their young adults succeed. Universities serve as an ideal setting to build stronger communities by collaborating with students and parents to develop decision-making skills and coping strategies so that families may transition from dependents and caregivers to self-advocates and advisors.
Schiffrin, H. H., Liss, M., Miles-McLean, H., Geary, K. A., Erchull, M. J., & Tashner, T. (2014). Helping or hovering? The effects of helicopter parenting on college students’ well-being. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 23, 548-557.
Dr. Grace “Frankie” Francis is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University. She graduated in 2013 from the University of Kansas under the advisement of Dr. Ann and Professor Rud Turnbull. Her research interests include transition to adulthood and family-professional partnerships policies and practices.