Dear Mr. Dad: I’m 19 and going to college nearly 1,000 miles from home. The problem is that my helicopter parents won’t let me alone. For example, since I don’t have any income, they’re paying for my cell phone, but they call me nearly every day and ask where I am and what I’m doing. They go through my bills and demand to know who I’m calling and why. And they’re constantly emailing and calling my instructors asking how I’m doing. It’s incredibly embarrassing. I’ve asked them to give me some space but they refuse. What can I do?
A: I’ve talked a lot in this column about how important it is for parents to stay involved in their children’s lives, to take an interest in their friends, their activities, and their education. Let’s give your parents the benefit of the doubt and assume that they have the best intentions—they love you and want you to succeed in life. Great. But there’s a clear line between being supportive and involved and being an intrusive helicopter parent—a line your parents crossed long ago.
The good news (actually, it’s not good news at all) is that you’re not alone. In a recent study of more than 400 college students from around the country, 25% said that their parents “make important decisions for me.” And a third of the parents admitted that they made important decisions for their college-age children.
Ideally, the three of you would be able to talk this through, so even though you’ve already done that without success, I suggest you try again, this time be firmer, but not hostile (in a few years, when you have kids of your own, you’ll appreciate having your parents around to help out). You might want to mention that the same study I mentioned above found that helicopter parents’ intrusive behavior backfired, decreasing students’ engagement in school and increasing their likelihood of skipping classes and turning in assignments late. According to the researchers, by not giving you the opportunity to solve your own problems and make your own decisions, helicopter parents may be robbing their kids of “the experiences necessary to develop skills that are essential for success in marriage, careers and adult social interactions.” You can read more about this study on helicopter parents here.
If mom and dad still don’t back off, you’ll have to take more serious steps to protect your privacy. First, get a job so you can pay for your own phone. Keep your old number so your parents can reach you in case of emergency, but get a new number too. Next, talk to school administrators and your instructors. Most colleges and universities have policies that prohibit them from discussing your grades or much else with anyone you haven’t specifically designated. Be very clear that your parents are NOT on the A list.
If none of that works, there are other alternatives. Like you, Aubrey Ireland of Lakewood, Kansas didn’t appreciate her parents’ constant intrusions. But when they told the head of her department that she needed treatment for mental illness and then accused her of being promiscuous and abusing drugs, Aubrey took them to court, according to an article in the journal of the American Bar Association. Her parents countersued, demanding that Aubrey repay more than $60,000 that her helicopter parents had spent on her education. But a judge granted a restraining order requiring ma and pa to stay at least 500 feet from their daughter and have no contact with her. Pretty extreme, but a story that might resonate with your parents.