Stop Overparenting! How to Let Your College Student Succeed (or Fail)

The transition to college isn’t just a shift for your kid. It’s probably a big change for you, too, as a parent, especially if this is your first child to go away to school. However you’re feeling, this is definitely a new stage for your family and for your son or daughter, so it’s a natural time to take an honest look at your parenting style and assess whether some changes to your approach are necessary.

off-to-college-main-200x200 2While the great job you did as a parent got your child this far – nearly grown and enrolled in college – the next step is for your college kid to become a full-fledged adult who can support him or herself. And in order for that to happen, some parents will need to switch gears and stop overparenting, a prevalent parenting style these days. (If we’re willing to admit it, a lot of us who are parents today can recognize our own ongoing habit of over-helping, over-supporting, overindulging and simply overdoing.)

How Helicoper Parenting Got Its Start

Overparenting can be seen as a reaction by those of us who grew up in the 1970s feeling a lack of supervision, often as latch-key kids who felt near-abandonment, explains Jessica Lahey, author of the new book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, and a teacher and columnist for The New York Times. “In our efforts to make up for our own perceived lack of guidance, we are ever-present, ever-helpful, ever-reminding, ever-rescuing,” writes Lahey, meticulously managing our children’s lives.

And while our intentions may be good, overparenting poses real problems for children, adolescents and young adults whose Mommy and Daddy look after everything for them. “We are sending our children this very clear message every time we rescue, hover or otherwise save them from a challenge: that we believe they are incompetent, incapable and utterly unworthy of our trust,” says Lahey, who reformed her own overparenting ways, allowing homework to stay on the kitchen table without a reminder and otherwise making her children completely responsible for their lives — from doing their own laundry to making good grades.

Harriet Rossetto, LCSW, founder of the Beit T’Shuvah addiction treatment center in West Los Angeles, California, recently launched an overparenting awareness campaign called “The Trauma of Privilege.” By “privilege,” Rossetto doesn’t mean ultra-affluent; the term refers primarily to exceedingly hands-on parents privileged enough to have the time and energy to become overly invested in every aspect of their children’s lives. As part of the awareness campaign, Beit T’Shuvah is hosting workshops. The first guest speaker, Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of the recent best-seller How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, presented at a workshop, telling the audience how to identify and stop overparenting habits. “Overparenting is letting our children off the hook and not teaching them to be accountable,” Lythcott-Haims told workshop attendees.

While the perils of being a helicopter parent may not be so obvious when a child is young, when you have a young adult with a “failure to launch” problem, the stakes are, of course, much higher. Rossetto frequently treats young people who fit this description and not only can’t get a self-sustaining job, move out of the house and take care of themselves, they’ve gone on to develop addiction(s), she says. If your child is at college (and even if you have younger teenaged children still at home), her advice couldn’t be clearer: “Parents must immediately take a step back,” she says. Kids who are overparented feel trapped and incapable and, ironically, overlooked, Rossetto says, “believing that as long as they appear to do well on the outside — in athletics or with top grades — that no one will ever question or care if they’re falling apart on the inside.”

Their Hardships Aren’t Your Failures

Jessica Lahey Pull Quote-02Chances are, if you overparent, you’ve invested a huge amount of your time and effort in your kids, perhaps sacrificing your other relationships, your work and other interests. Which is why it makes sense that a mother or father will feel like a failure when their child doesn’t get into the “right” colleges, or, once at school, fails an exam or gets bad grades — or worse. Protecting our children from harm in any form is in our DNA, after all. But, says Lahey, by letting your son or daughter experience hardship, disappointment and loss — and even fail — without making it easier for them, they’re actually likely to be more engaged in academics, more enthusiastic about education and more motivated to succeed. “I challenge parents to think about how much our perceptions of our kids as dependent and needy fuel the reality of their dependence and helplessness,” Lahey says.

Even if you don’t believe her, consider the research, she says. “Decades of studies and hundreds of pages of scientific evidence point to one conclusion that sounds crazy, but it absolutely works: If parents back off the pressure and anxiety over grades and achievement and focus on the bigger picture—[encouraging] a love of learning and independent inquiry — grades will improve and test scores will go up,” Lahey writes in The Gift of Failure. “Children of controlling and directive parents are much less able to deal with intellectual and physical challenges than peers who benefit from parents who stand back and allow their children to try, and fail, and try again.” In fact, if parents are always there to save the day, a kid can become afraid to even try, developing an actual fear of failure.

College, after all, is a proving ground for real life, so even if you found it hard or impossible to step back when your son or daughter was in high school, now you must do so if you’re too involved. Sure, you might also need to also embrace “duct-tape parenting,” a term coined by Vicki Hoefle, an author and parenting coach, to describe parents who need the durable, all-purpose tape over their mouths to stop pointing out what your son is doing wrong in his astronomy class or how your daughter should solve the problem with her roommate.

Though most overparenting moms and dads do need to let their child lead their own life at college, it’s worth acknowledging that not all kids are the same, of course. If your son or daughter has had academic trouble in the past; has disabilities; is socially awkward; or has a history of substance abuse or mental health issues, it can be particularly hard to simply trust them to be the manager of their own life. And even if your kid has none of these issues, the truth is that we live in an era where overparenting is so common that it can be hard to let your young adult make mistakes when your friends are helping ensure their children have a “flawless” semester. “I have taught children with all kinds of issues, with all sorts of needs, from all sorts of homes, and it’s up to the people who know their children best to decide where and when it’s appropriate to give a child space to explore and fail,” says Lahey. For most, college is a natural point to do that, and if a true crisis does come up, you’ll be there, of course.

How to Leave Overparenting Behind for Good

Know that whatever challenges your child faces ahead this semester at college – homesickness, new romances, roommate friction, substance use and abuse, getting an “F” in animal science – all are learning experiences. Making mistakes teaches us all, no matter how old we are, how to be resilient, capable, creative problem-solvers, Lahey says.

If you have resolved to shift your parenting style, it might be worth giving your college kid an explanation of why things are changing now. Lahey recommends saying something like, “You know, I think I’ve made a mistake where my parenting is concerned. I have not been giving you the space and trust you need in order to become a competent adult, but I want to give that to you now.” “The bonus here,” she says, “is that if we let our kids see us make mistakes, accept feedback, learn and change, that shows them that we value growth. That’s the most important lesson we can teach our kids.”

Read on for some more advice on how to give your college student the opportunity to take control of his or her life. In turn, your child should develop greater confidence and more self-reliance, even if there are mishaps and mistakes along the way:

Don’t ask about grades and academic achievement. “The best thing you can do for a child of any age is to focus on process over product,” Lahey says. “When you call or text your child, ask what she is learning, not how she did on her astronomy test. If she calls to tell you that she did well, or poorly, on that test, ask about what she did to prepare.” If her grade was lower than she wanted, ask if she talked to her professor about what she can do to improve. Remember: It’s more important to show interest in your child’s goals and how she’s going to get there rather than asking about grades. This can be particularly hard to remember, though, when you are paying huge tuition bills or fear that your child’s scholarship will be in jeopardy if she doesn’t make the mark.

Don’t offer advice unless asked. Even if you can see the writing on the wall and know that your child has chosen the wrong major or a class that’s over his head, for example, keep your lips zipped. Let your child figure it out on his own, without nagging or telling him what he should or shouldn’t do. If he comes to you and says he thinks he’s not cut out for pre-med, for example, ask him what classes he feels most connected to and successful in. When you encourage your kid to make a plan and set goals himself, the thrill of his eventual success is then his, not yours.

Model healthy risk-taking. Talk about your own aspirations in your career or your intellectual or creative life, including and especially the ones that make you nervous, sharing specifics about what you’re doing to achieve them. Your college student can learn from your efforts to get a promotion, take a class or try a new career path or job.

Avoid doing for them. Whatever you do, do not call your child’s professors, do their homework, solve their problems, interact with adults on their behalf, call to remind them to go to class or turn in assignments, or refer to “we” in relation to your young adult whatsoever, stresses Rossetto.

Learn to value mistakes. As Lahey writes, parents should “value mistakes as much as successes.” Instead of scolding your child about a poor grade or even a failed class, encourage her to discover the lesson in the failure and to learn from it. “The real learning happens when kids begin to understand how to pick through the wreckage find the pieces that still work for them and devise a strategy for future success,” Lahey writes. Letting your child make mistakes can be hard to do, but missteps might prevent an even bigger fail later this semester or in life.

Know your boundaries. While your child’s roommate(s) should have your contact information in case of an emergency, you shouldn’t friend your kid’s besties on Facebook or get in the middle of roommate friction by sending texts or calling. The college social scene is a place where your student also needs to learn and grow on his own. In a few short years, he won’t have the protection of a college community and will need to make it in the real world. It’s your job as a parent, first and foremost, to ensure he has the emotional and intellectual skills to do just that — on his own.

This article is part of the series Off to College 2015: The First Six Weeks.” To read more about how students can make a healthy transition to campus life, click here.

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5 Responses to Stop Overparenting! How to Let Your College Student Succeed (or Fail)

  1. Avatar
    Cherlyn Ingram March 19, 2016 at 8:13 pm #

    Colleen, I appreciate your article. I’m trying to learn to stop “over-teachering” in my university English-as-a-Second-Language teaching. When a student fails, I tend to agonize over it and work overtime preparing explanations and exercises in an effort to make things easier, but I fear I’m really trying to “learn” for them — do it for them. Working in an Intensive English Program with students in classes 20 hours a week for 8-week sessions does not allow for much time to coddle a student who just isn’t getting it. Where would you draw the line and say to yourself that you’ve done enough — now go to bed?

    “. . . you should friend your kid’s besties on Facebook or get in the middle of roommate friction by sending texts or calling.” Don’t you mean “. . . you shouldn’t friend . . .”?

    If you’d like someone to look over your writing before publishing or uploading, contact

    • Avatar
      John Smith April 15, 2016 at 10:39 am #

      As a student I can relate to this. I usually under value the easy classes and end up procrastinating for them till the exam date. You need to start off seeming tough so the students know that this isn’t a play ground or play period. Be stern when teaching but also involve every student, don’t make it so you are unapproachable or students will feel discouraged to ask for help and feel undervalued. Be stern but show how you are proud of their accomplishments not just rewarding the ones who get the 90’s or all the answers but also the students who move up from getting 50’s on tests to 60’s. When students feel good they gain the confidence in their abilities and will try to improve for themselves instead of for society or their parents. I was the last born child of the family and my elder siblings were geniuses when it came to academia. No matter what I did my parents never noticed me and as such I stopped caring about my grades. Its good to not over parent but it is good to still show that they have a parent there. Notice their failures but don’t make them feel worse than they already do instead encourage them to try new things and improve for themselves. For your students I suggest laying out a syllabus and warning them that the class won’t be easy and they will fail without hard work. When students approach for help be kind and guide them to the right answer as opposed to giving the answer right away. Thank you.

  2. Avatar
    Gini April 13, 2016 at 4:46 am #

    I think there is a typo at the end. Shouldn’t it say “you shouldn’t friend you kids besties”?

    • Avatar
      Laura Nott April 15, 2016 at 3:30 pm #

      Yes, thank you! It’s fixed.

  3. Avatar
    Demos October 4, 2016 at 3:24 am #

    What if your kid just stopped doing his homework, after a life affecting event like traveling out of the country for the first time?
    We’re not talking about learning here, we’re talking about doing homework. My school system has a way to monitor at least when they’re not turning things in. What’s the best way to approach a kid who’s not doing that, and yet, you know it. It drags down the grades, not allowing any tests to even overcome all the missing homework.

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