Sunday, September 5, 2010

TXT me when U get there: Helicopter parenting as kids go off to college

By Tristan Gorrindo, M.D.

Thousands of teenagers have headed to college and for many it is the first time that they lived away from home. And while this process of separation is often anxiety provoking for the college freshman, their parents may be equally anxious.

With modern technology, it has never been easier to stay in touch. Text messaging, cell phones, social networking websites, video chatting and email, have all made constant contact simple and expected. But at times it can go too far. In my clinical practice I have heard stories of parents who call each morning to wake their child up for class; parents who panic if they don’t get at least two text messages a day from their child; or, even parents who require that their child parade new college friends in front of a Skype camera before granting permission for their teen to befriend them.

But what is the developmental cost of this collegiate level helicopter parenting? Certainly parents want (and should) be involved in the lives of their child as they branch out into adulthood, but when parents’ constant checking in distracts or disrupts the process of development, college-aged kids have a problem.

The goal of moving away to college is just as much about forming one’s identity as it is about late-night cramming and classes. Further, it is a time for the young adult to develop self-reliance and responsibility for one’s actions. It’s also a time for teens to form new friendships. Well-meaning, but over-eager parenting has the ability to disrupt all of these normal developmental steps. Young adults need the chance to find others to depend on, to learn to pick up after their own disappointments, and to experiment with new behaviors without having to report back.

The exact amount of contact that parents and their college kids should have is a personal negotiation between each child and each parent. The best time for such negotiation is before a child departs for college, preferably before both parent and child are deep in separation anxiety. Parents need ground rules about how often they should expect texts from their child and guidance about how long they should wait before panicking if a phone call isn’t returned or a Skype call goes unanswered.

Kids can be asked how they would like to be contacted, and with what frequency. Establishing a regular routine around check-ins -- like calling Dad each Sunday morning on the phone for a debriefing of the past week and planning for the week to come -- can go a long way in managing parental anxiety. Perhaps, after a few weeks at school, parent and child can check-in on how these check-ins are going. With some experience at being apart, students may want to adjust the type and quantity of contact that they have with their parents.

Never before have college students and their parents had such a rich array of ways to stay engaged with one another. While kids continue to benefit from their parents guidance and interest, they also need to know that their parents believe in their new skills to pilot their own planes.

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