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When Should Helicopter Parents “Buzz Off”?
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By Katherine Keith


auremar / 123RF Stock PhotoWhen we dropped our second child off at college, we arrived late.  We hurriedly dragged her stuff to her room, gave her a hug and a kiss and took off.  The parents in the next room referred to us as "Drop and Go Parents.”  When we took our first child to college, I made her bed for her, we helped her set up a bank account on campus, we spent the night nearby, we introduced ourselves at the learning center and stopped off to say hello (again) to her lacrosse coach.  OK, we were "Helicopter Parents.”


Why the difference?  While it is typical to be more relaxed with your second child, more than just first child/second child was going on.  Our first child has a significant learning disability while our second does not.  If your child has ADHD or a learning disability and you have gotten to the point where your child is ready to go to college, you know that no matter how hard your child has worked, you have had to be there to support, facilitate, advocate, and — yes — intervene.  It’s hard to let go of that!


However, in retrospect, our second, non-learning-disabled child needed more support and acknowledgement of the difficulty of this big step, and we inadvertently reinforced our first child’s anxiety by being overly concerned.


So, where is the happy middle between "Drop and Go” and "Helicopter” parenting when your child reaches college — particularly if your child has ADHD?  It lies in continuing to support, encourage and advise while resisting the urge to intervene unless the circumstances call for intervention.


How do you gage if the circumstances call for intervention?  Ask yourself, "If I don’t intervene, will the result of this problem be significantly life-changing or life-threatening?”  If the answer is no, provide lots of support but do not intervene.  If the answer is yes, then you must intervene.  (In this case, helicopter-parenting is like Medevac!)


Let’s say your child tells you she got a "D” on her paper because it was late, and might be failing the class.  Is one bad grade going to have a devastating effect on her future?  No.  So what do you do?  When your child was in high school, you might have scheduled a meeting with the teacher or contacted her case manager to make sure the teacher understands your child’s challenges and need for accommodations.  But, you would have also encouraged her to talk to her teacher herself, right?


Remember, you have been working with your child for years to help develop his or her self-advocacy skills.  Your role now is to remind your child of those skills, and encourage her to use them.  Ask her, "What do you think might be helpful?” and help her brain-storm some options, such as meeting with her professor, scheduling appointments at the writing center, finding a study partner and other ideas.  Accept her ideas and encourage her to put them to the test.


But what if your child is failing all of her classes?  The result of this will likely be being sent home and not being invited back.  While this is traumatic and will make her future more difficult, what could really be dangerous is why this is happening.  It is time to intervene, but you need to understand the underlying cause in order to intervene effectively.


Is she academically overwhelmed, taking too many courses for which she is academically unprepared?  You can help her drop a class or two, arrange for a tutor or coach and contact the learning center for advice.


Has she forgotten to take her meds and can’t focus?  You can help by making sure she has her meds and helping her come up with a reminder for taking them.


Is she spending her time "partying” with drugs or alcohol?  Or is she depressed?  Either of these situations can be life-threatening.  If you have any reason to believe that either of these are the cause, contact the Student Counseling Center as soon as possible.  Twenty-five percent of freshmen are clinically depressed during the year, and substance abuse is everywhere.  Most student counseling centers will send someone to check on your child and arrange a counseling appointment right away.


Fortunately most problems kids encounter their first year are not life-threatening. So, listen, advise, cajole, coach, and encourage—all things you have clearly done well before to help your child get to this point.


Katherine Keith was cofounder and Head of The Howard Gardner School, a school for bright, creative, non-traditional learners, for a decade. She is currently working with young people on their transition to college and independence through her program, Great College Transitions.




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