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Helicopter Parenting: Recipe for Alcohol or Drug Addiction?

chicago treatment centerMental health professionals continue to notice that young adults increasingly have difficulty transitioning into adulthood. They struggle with more emotional adjustment issues than ever before. These issues show up as a lower tolerance for stress and under-developed coping skills, during a time in their lives when these skills are most needed. Without these necessary coping skills, they are facing higher levels of depression, anxiety and substance abuse, including addiction to alcohol and drugs.

This has left many professionals wondering if changes in parenting styles may contribute to the increased inability of young adults to cope with life. Specifically, the over-involvement of parents who take extensive measures to shelter or protect their children’s lives.

Parents are instrumental in the healthy development of a young adult.  A parent’s role changes as young adults grow older and become increasingly independent.  But letting go or loosening the reins can be a challenge. Many parents struggle with finding the balance between healthy support and micromanaging as their children move through college and beyond.

The term “helicopter parent” is used to describe parents who pay extremely close attention to and become heavily involved in their young adult’s experiences and problems, particularly at college. These parents ‘hover’ over their college student to quickly clear pathways, remove obstacles, offer advice and ensure the student is always in the most favorable position.  They often become overly involved as their child’s negotiator and advocate, acting as a buffer between their child and the world. This may mean contacting a college professor to dispute a grade, telling their child exactly how to solve a problem or rescuing a child from negative consequences that result from poor decisions, including drug or alcohol use.

Although no parent wants to see a child suffer, helicoptering behavior can actually harm young adults in the long run.  The young adults can end up feeling dis-empowered and often feels anxious about the parents’ involvement.  If their parents fight all their battles, the young adults begin to believe they have no ability to fight their own battles and develop low self-esteem and low self confidence.

Studies have found that young adults whose parents are over-involved have lower self esteem, fewer coping skills, lower self-confidence, fewer social skills and higher levels of anxiety.  If young adults are accustomed to their parents fighting all their battles they do not develop the coping skills and real world practice to manage difficult situations they will inevitably encounter.  If the frustration level or emotional discomfort gets too high, these young adults will be at greater risk to use or abuse alcohol or drugs as a way to cope.

So … what’s the solution?  The key focus for parents is to help young adults become independent.  

Here are some suggestions:

  • Move from acting as negotiator or problem-solver to coach.  This will help you shift away from parent-driven problem solving to student-driven problem solving.  Give encouragement to your young adults and help them remember other problems they have solved well in the past. Talk through their solutions with them to help them build confidence in their own abilities.
  • Mistakes happen.  Instead of becoming upset, over-involved or quick to fix, think of a mistake as a teachable moment.  Ask what your young adult can learn from the experience and their decision and how they may want to handle a similar situation differently in the future.  This helps develop skills of planning, analysis and thinking-through consequences for future situations. Often facing the consequences of a decision is the most important teacher, so don’t jump in and deprive your young adult of this lesson.
  • Step back and allow more space for your young adult to develop life and coping skills through life experiences. The end goal is for your young adult to become his/her own advocate and can fend for his/her self in an effective way.
  • Wait until you are asked. Become a consultant and sounding board and most likely your child will turn to you when they truly need your help. Instead of solving, just listen and let your young adult talk through his/her own solutions.
  • If you feel your young adult is in over his/her head, walk through their plans and guide them through the pros and cons of the plans. It is a delicate dance knowing when to let the struggle work itself out and when to step in and assist.  It is a learning time for everyone!

Teaching young adults to manage stress, frustration, disappointment and discouragement on their own will help them avoid becoming stuck in depression and anxiety and perhaps turning to drugs or alcohol to cope.  Their ability to self-advocate and take initiative will impress professors and future employers and in the end you will be proud of their accomplishments.

New Hope Recovery Center is located in Chicago, IL and provides many different services. If you or someone you know is experiencing problems due to their drug or alcohol use, contact us. Help is just a phone call away! 773-883-3916

Written by: New Hope Recovery Center