Student Depression: More Than Helicopter Parenting

You’ve seen the story making the rounds amongst parents and academics that correlates helicopter parenting with college-age depression. You might well have nodded along as you read the horrific stories of awful parents who dictate their kids’ university choice, major and even study habits. These are truly wrong-headed individuals who, by micro-managing their children’s lives well into adulthood, deprive them of the chance to learn how to be independent, self-reliant and find their own happiness.

That said, I take issue with a big part of the article’s claims.

As parents, our intentions are sound—more than sound: We love our kids fiercely and want only the very best for them. Yet, having succumbed to a combination of safety fears, a college admissions arms race, and perhaps our own needy ego, our sense of what is “best” for our kids is completely out of whack. We don’t want our kids to bonk their heads or have hurt feelings, but we’re willing to take real chances with their mental health?

You’re right to be thinking Yes, but do we know whether overparenting causes this rise in mental health problems? The answer is that we don’t have studies proving causation, but a number of recent studies show correlation.

The emphasis is that of Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of the book from which the article is an excerpt. The former freshman dean at Stanford candidly admits that she knows this overactive parenting culture all too well and frequently has fallen into some of the bad habits she herein decries. I’m good with anything that helps to counter the scourge of parents who treat twenty-somethings as toddlers or leads to mom or dad buttonholing profs and TAs over what’s properly the student’s turf. And don’t get me started on that smooth rhetorical slide right past the whole correlation line because we all know correlation is not causation, right? Right!

In any case, I’m troubled by the easy equation of depression in college-aged people with the evils of helicopter parenting. Yes, that can be one factor, but is it the only or even the best? I’d say no. There’s a whole raft of reasons for the youth of today to be profoundly depressed. It’s the economy, stupid! We’re destroying the planet and waging war worldwide. Even if we focus in those problems directly affecting colleged-aged people who are actually going to college, there’s still enough fodder for a real-world dystopian Hunger Games: ruinous tuition increases, student debt that’s impossible to discharge, gutted support for students, dismal job prospects and political leaders enthusiastically dismantling public higher education. Oh, that’s cheerful, isn’t it? Let’s not forget how these young people have been hemmed in by decades of “No Child Left Behind” and other onerous testing regimes in their school lives, or communities that eagerly police the practices of “free-range” parenting. When students revolt against standardized tests, how are we surprised?

But ignore that man behind the curtain, Dorothy. No, look at the bad parents here and there. Why, they’re the cause of this whole problem! Let’s just get them to change their behaviour and, sure as shooting, young, crestfallen folk across the continent will start to perk up.

That’s ridiculous! This is a small fix for only a tiny slice of a big problem. But it’s easy, ridiculously easy, to stir up popular disgust with painful parenting practices such as those described in the story. Nobody can justify those excesses, but nobody can sustain the argument this helicopter parenting the key to the real mental health crises on university and college campuses or in those peer groups beyond the ivory tower.

Depression is an illness but there are people who can help you. Depression is serious, depression is real and depression isn’t banished by condemning over-the-top parenting practices. We need to accept that helping young people manage their mental health takes resources, commitment and actually paying real attention to their concerns.

So let’s stop feeling as if condemning one particular brand of bad parenting is what we need to do to support students with their mental health issues, okay? Thanks.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Student Depression: More Than Helicopter Parenting

  1. I believe there’s more depression among adults than there used to be, as well. All of this may be due to the factors you discuss, or to greater frequency of recognizing/diagnosing, or to environmental factors (changes in human gut microbes?), but whatever it is, it makes perfect sense that parents of depressed young adults would helicopter a bit to make sure that their kids get what they need. A fairly high proportion of my students at LRU have mental health problems, and I’ve seen the gamut of parental involvement, from none (mom doesn’t believe in depression, kid did all the work involved in getting diagnosis and help) to very appropriate support to slightly hysterical high-pressure “advocacy.” Mostly I’m glad these students have parents who can help them—I worry, but there’s little I can really do for commuters I see for 3 hours a week (Large Regional is very different from a high-residential SLAC). So, yeah, obviously there’s correlation: what kind of parent would say, “OK, Suzy/Johnny, go ahead, stay in bed, don’t take your meds, fail all your courses, maybe that will teach you not to be depressed” ???

    • J Liedl

      Thanks, Dame EH, for adding an important perspective here. We don’t have as many commuters here but we do have many students whose families have little perspective on the stress of school. There are too many students whose parents believe they can work all the hours around their classes and be available for family functions whenever. That’s more of a stressor, for certain!

  2. Contingent Cassandra

    I found myself feeling a bit skeptical, too (but with you in cheering almost anything that might get parents — some parents, because honestly most of our students don’t come from families with time or energy or money for helicoptering — to back off). In an odd way, her argument seems to have the potential perpetuate the underlying problem by both reassuring and terrifying parents with the idea that they have a tremendous amount of power over their children’s lives. Admitting that — for instance — being born into a large birth cohort that came of age just as the economy was taking a nosedive, college tuitions were skyrocketing, and the real value of financial aid was plummeting is just plain bad luck of the sort that would justifiably depress/stress out pretty much anyone, and that parents can only do so much to counteract, probably wouldn’t sell many books, however.

    • J Liedl

      Yes, who’s going to buy the books and get snapped up by the newscasts and commentators if they focus on the structural obstacles to success for young people. Nobody, that’s who!

  3. notofgeneralinterest2

    I’m so glad you pointed out all the factors. There’s a tendency to blame helicopter parents (admittedly, an easy target) instead of all the issues facing students today–the recession’s devastating effect on jobs, student loan debt, the dismantling of higher ed, and so on. “Snap out of it” is never helpful in cases of depression, but pretending that this is somehow self-willed and not conditioned by horrid economic circumstances that they’ll face when they graduation is beyond egregious.