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Parenting out of Fear

Despite studies that link mental illness with overprotective, hovering parents, many Americans “helicopter” parent out of a desire to protect their child from harm.

Eighteen-year-old Katie McGowan left for her best friend’s house one summer night with her makeup done and a red backpack in hand. She was a legal adult, she was leaving for college soon, and she wanted to celebrate her last days with her friends from high school before the demands of adult life set in. She told her mom that she was spending the night at her friend Taeya’s house, who lived just across the cul-de-sac – she and Katie were practically sisters. Katie swore to her mom, Stacy, that they wouldn’t go anywhere else.

The two girls waited for Taeya’s parents to go to sleep, and then they left in Katie’s car, bottles of Fireball and Captain Morgan in her backpack. Katie turned off her phone so that her mom wouldn’t be able to track it. If Stacy found out that she really wasn’t at Taeya’s, there would be consequences.

But Stacy was ahead of her adult daughter.

A week or two before, Stacy went into Katie’s room to borrow a bag for a weekend trip. She found Katie’s red backpack, and the bottles of alcohol inside. She wasn’t entirely shocked, but she certainly wasn’t happy. Katie wasn’t home, and so Stacy couldn’t immediately confront her. Feeling a bit mischievous, she set up a different punishment for Katie.

With help from Megan, Katie’s older sister, Stacy replaced the whiskey and rum with perfect amounts of water and food coloring. The Captain Morgan went to Stacy’s older daughter. The Fireball went down the drain.

If Stacy’s plot went according to plan, Katie would receive the most entertaining punishment: the disappointment and embarrassment of bringing bottles of water to a party.

That night, Katie and Taeya had snuck out to a bonfire in hopes of a good time. But the party wasn’t what they had been expecting. It was pretty early in the night, and they were the only two girls there. Nobody was drinking yet. Out of boredom, Katie turned her phone back on.

Stacy McGowan has been using Apple’s Find Friends feature since it was downloaded with iOS 8. The app uses the phone’s AirDrop location to track the user’s friends. Though she initially used it out of curiosity, she now uses it to track her kids.

She found this new purpose for the app during Katie’s junior year of high school, when she started sneaking out. Stacy’s close watch over Katie puts her in a new category of parents – those that hover over their children and watch their every move.

Helicopter parenting developed in the parents of the Millennial generation. It’s characterized by “hovering” over children, especially when they are at the age and maturity level at which most are able to handle things themselves. Helicopter parents are believed to affect their kids by being too involved in their lives. Although, Stacy does not think she is so over-involved that her parenting style constitutes helicopter parenting.

Although helicopter parenting can be seen as overbearing, many parents “hover” out of fear. A report from the University of Houston Law Center said that helicopter parents hover out of worry for their child’s safety and fixation over their success.

Other aspects of helicopter parenting usually pertain to academics, such as watching a child’s grades too closely or too long after they go to college. Helicopter parents remain just as close and involved as if their children are very young. According to Pew Research Center, about half of American parents believe that they can never be too involved in their children’s education.

Lisa Pellerin, an associate professor of Sociology at Ball State University, has had numerous discussions about helicopter parenting with her colleagues over the years. She’s even received calls from over-involved parents regarding their kids’ grades.

At Ball State, professors aren’t allowed to discuss a student’s grades with anyone else, unless the student formally gives permission. Lisa warns parents of this, and the problem usually subsides. She says that students usually know why they got the grade that they’re unhappy about, even if they don’t want to accept it.

Stacy doesn’t follow her children’s grades too closely, but she is involved in their education. In 2013, Stacy was elected to the board of education in her children’s school district. When Stacy’s oldest, Megan, graduated in 2014, Stacy got to hand her the diploma. Katie followed suit in 2016. If Stacy is reelected as secretary of the board in 2017, her son Patrick will get the same experience in 2019.

Stacy has stepped in on behalf of her children in the past, but not quite in the way Pellerin has experienced. She cites her oldest daughter’s mental illness as the root of her overbearing parenting style. When Megan was a freshman in high school, she was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety. Stacy had to communicate this to Megan’s teachers and coaches, so she got into the habit of being very involved.

However, some studies suggest that helicopter parents are the cause of depression and anxiety in children. The Journal of Family and Child Studies cites research that shows a link between helicopter parents and mental illness in children. Many studies have concluded that Millennials with helicopter parents may have anxiety or depression because they are unable to cope with situations on their own, as opposed to the mental illness being the cause of the overprotective parents.

Ball State psychology professor Kathryn Fletcher has a different take on the studies. “If I know my adolescent has a history or a current diagnosis of anxiety and depression, then I am going to use those maybe ‘over-involved’ or ‘over-protective’ behaviors.” Helicopter parenting may be more common in parents of those with mental illness, but that doesn’t mean that a parent’s involvement brought it on. Parents often know how much attention their children need, and mental illness would cause them to require more. In these cases, parents wouldn’t be overbearing, but giving just the right amount of attention.  

This theory doesn’t only apply to parents of children with mental illness. If a child misbehaves, they, too, might require more attention from their parents, which is why Stacy says she is so involved in Katie’s activities and whereabouts.

Katie, however, isn’t a fan of her mom’s watchful eye. While college searching, one of her main requirements was a campus far enough away for her to spread her wings. After a few college visits, Katie chose the University of Northern Colorado to pursue a degree in nursing. It was definitely far from her home in Poplar Grove, Illinois. When she committed, it seemed like the perfect fit.

As time passed, though, her feelings on her choice changed. Colorado was too far from her friends, and even too far from her family. “[My parents] said I couldn’t come home for Thanksgiving,” Katie said. “I would have been eating some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

She abandoned her hopes – and her tuition deposit – and registered for classes at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, which is only six hours away from her hometown. SIU-C wasn’t as good of a nursing school as UNC, but it had some major upsides. Katie would get to come home for Thanksgiving, and she would be roommates with Taeya.

The effects of being raised by a helicopter parent really come to the surface when it’s time for the child to leave the nest. Going to a new place and not knowing anyone is difficult, but it can be worse for a child used to having a parent watch so closely. Stacy is far enough from SIU-C for Katie to feel like she’s living her own life – but she’s still close enough to home to know her mother is watching.

Parents like Stacy haven’t been around for very long, and there are a few theories out there on how they came to be. Jill Walls, an assistant professor in Ball State’s department of family and consumer science, blames a cultural shift for this type of parenting style. About a century ago, children were not as protected. There were no child labor laws, so kids had to do a lot of things that only adults do today. Over time, childhood became acknowledged as its own distinct stage of life, so parents had to learn how to care for and watch over their children. Helicopter parenting could be a result of parents trying to find their footing after this cultural shift.

Walls views parenting to be a long series of decisions. There is no right or wrong way to parent, but statistically, some of these decisions prove to be more beneficial for the child. She also stressed that there is so much pressure placed by society on parents to raise their children well. Lenient parenting is frowned upon as much as over-parenting, if not more.

Pellerin also believes society is part of the cause of helicopter parenting. Our society pressures parents to be watching their children at all times, even if that isn’t what’s best for the child, she says. Watching at all times is how Stacy knew that Katie lied about staying at Taeya’s. Stacy had her suspicions when Katie went out with the red backpack, and the fact that Katie had a history of lying about her whereabouts.

This was another one of those nights. Since Katie turned her phone on, her mom could access her location. Stacy’s Find Friends app showed that her daughter was in a different neighborhood altogether. She was furious.

“I know what you’re doing,” Stacy texted her daughter.

“I’m just at a bonfire,” Katie responded. She accompanied the text with a photo of the fire in front of her. Katie didn’t think Stacy had any clue that she had brought alcohol to the party. Stacy knew the drinks Katie brought were harmless, but she assumed there was also real alcohol at the party.

Stacy threatened to call the police and shut down the party if Katie wasn’t home in ten minutes.

In cases of underage drinking, carelessness can be just as dangerous as a kid’s rebellion. Some parents may need to always be involved, especially if their children are more likely to get themselves into trouble. In instances of underage drinking, parents could get into legal trouble, simply because they weren’t watching close enough or intervening.

Stacy isn’t worried so much about her daughter’s safety. She says she knows Katie will always go out with someone she trusts and they will always watch each other’s backs.

After a few more texts from Stacy and a few more boring moments at the bonfire, Katie and Taeya eventually headed back home. When they turned onto their street, at the top of a hill, Taeya hopped out of the car with Katie’s red backpack. No one drank from the bottles of colored water, but the girls hoped removing any evidence of underage drinking would lessen Katie’s punishment. Taeya walked to her own house, and Katie returned to her angry mother. There was no discussion. Katie went straight to bed.

The next night, Katie went out again.The bonfire was a bust, so Katie’s group of friends were having a larger house party.

Once again, she claimed she was staying at Taeya’s. Most of Katie’s time was spent with Taeya, and Stacy wasn’t going to forbid her from spending time with her best friend. Before leaving, Stacy checked Katie’s bags. She made Katie lift her shirt to be sure she wasn’t dressed up under her pajamas. Just like the night before, the girls headed out when Taeya’s parents fell asleep. Katie made sure her phone was off, but she made the mistake of bringing it with her.

Katie was the first person to drink from the bottles that she brought. Although she was caught up in the excitement of the party, she knew right away that she wasn’t drinking alcohol.

She set up shots of “Fireball” for everyone. Each guest took a shot, and they realized it was only water. All of Katie’s friends knew Stacy very well. There was no question that she was the one who filled the bottles with water. They laughed it off, and turned to other drinks. Katie was annoyed that all of her alcohol was gone, but at least her mother’s punishment didn’t go as planned.

Just like the night before, Katie got bored and turned her phone on again. Texts from her mom started to roll in, but she ignored them. It was one of her last nights with friends from high school, and getting grounded would be a small price to pay for enjoying herself.

When she returned to Taeya’s that night, Stacy was waiting in the driveway. Without a word, Stacy pulled Katie across the street and into their house by her ear. The two didn’t discuss the extent of her punishment, but it was made clear that Katie was in deep trouble. Katie went straight to her room.

The next morning, Stacy and her husband laid out Katie’s punishment. They took away her computer and Xbox, and they told her she wasn’t allowed to sleep over at anyone’s house – not even Taeya’s.

Stacy kept her daughter safe and out of trouble because of her watchful eye. Although she doesn’t think of herself as a helicopter parent, her desire to keep an eye on Katie to ensure she is safe and successful are the main reasons others choose to be over-involved in their children’s lives. Fearing for their children, being involved as much as possible seems like the only option.

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