Are overbearing parents to blame for students' rising anxiety?

One former dean argues the correlation is clear

A growing body of research shows a correlation between "helicopter" parenting and depression in college students, Julie Lythcott-Haims writes in Slate.

In an excerpt from her book "How to Raise an Adult," former Stanford University Dean Lythcott-Haims discusses the increasing rates of depression and anxiety disorders among college students and parenting habits that may contribute to the trend.

In 2013, a survey of college counseling center directors found:

  • 95% said students with significant psychological issues was an increasing concern;
  • 70% reported rising numbers of students with severe psychological issues;
  • 24.5% of student patients took psychotropic drugs.

Another survey the same year by the American College Health Association, polled nearly 100,000 college students from 153 campuses across all 50 states and types of schools. Within the last year:

  • 8% of students contemplated committing suicide;
  • 51.3% of students reported overwhelming anxiety; and
  • 84.3% of students said they felt overwhelmed.

"The mental health crisis is not a Yale (or Stanford or Harvard) problem; these poor mental health outcomes are occurring in kids everywhere," writes Lythcott-Haims.

Survey: Most college students grapple with depression

The proliferation of such issues in college students suggests that the cause comes from "some facet of American childhood itself," she says.

That facet, argues Lythcott-Haims, may very well be helicopter parenting. Studies in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 all found evidence that students with "hovering" parents were more likely to be anxious, take medication for depression or anxiety, have had limited opportunities to "develop important skills needed for becoming self-reliant adults," or have weaker abilities to choose their goal-oriented actions. 

"Overinvolved parenting is taking a serious toll on the psychological well-being of college students who can't negotiate a balance between consulting with parents and independent decision-making," says one staff psychologist from a large, Midwestern public university, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Also in EAB Daily Briefing: Dartmouth team cracks student mental health code

"When children aren't given the space to struggle through things on their own, they don't learn to problem solve very well," the psychologist said.

Psychologist Madeline Levine defines overparenting based on three actions:

  • Doing things for children that they can already do;
  • Doing things for children that they can almost do; and
  • Doing things motivated by the parents' egos.

These behaviors block kids from learning how to problem solve, generate resilience, and discover who they are.

"The research shows that figuring out for themselves is a critical element to people's mental health. Your kids have to be there for themselves," writes Lythcott-Haims (Lythcott-Haims, Slate, 7/5).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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