From Hovering Mentors to Intrusive Rescue Squads: A Spectrum of Helicopter Parents

Study abroad is all about independence. When issues arise, from sorting out transfer of credit to dealing with a problematic host family, a phone call needs to be made to a student’s home university or program provider to discuss and address the problem. However, today’s “Millenial” students abroad are not always the ones making these calls. Instead, it is often their increasingly involved, protective parents who are taking the initiative.

The concept of the “hovering” helicopter parent continues to saturate the study abroad industry. A recent study, conducted by lead author Patricia Somers, an associate professor at the University of Texas, Austin, further analyzes helicopter parents by designating various categories, from the pseudo-stalker “toxic parent” to the value-seeking “consumer advocate.”

The study includes insights from 75 officials, professors and staff at 15 universities, and the findings assert that, “40% to 60% of college parents qualify as helicopter parents, and they come from all socioeconomic groups.”

Here are the categories presented by the study:

The Blackhawk Parent

Jim Settle, Vice President of Student Affairs at Shawnee State University and a co-author, says that “they start at the president’s office, regardless of the issue.” Blackhawk parents exercise poor problem-solving strategies, ultimately restricting their child’s independence.

The Toxic Parent

These parents meddle in intrusive ways that imply the student is untrustworthy or ill-equipped. Parents at several schools, Dr. Somers says, obtained their children’s log-on information, researched prospective roommates on Facebook, then masqueraded as their children online to request roommate assignments. One couple cited separately in the study installed a nanny-cam in their son’s dorm room; the student was aware of the nanny-cam but didn’t know Mom and Dad also planted an electronic transmitter in his car. When he strayed to a nearby city in his car, they withdrew him from college.

The Consumer Advocate

These parents regard higher education as a consumer transaction and negotiate tirelessly for discounts. They feel that, as “co-purchasers,” they are entitled to all the same information and staff access as their children, researchers say. Many err in expecting a “warranty,” the study says- a post-graduation job guarantee.

The Safety Expert

Parents undoubtedly will ask about emergency plans, but some cross the line by demanding copies of fire inspection records and confidential emergency operations manuals. While such parents can be overprotective, they also, with some restraint, can teach valuable safety lessons.

The Traffic and Rescue Helicopters

This category highlights the more subdued parent that cares for their child without crossing too many boundaries. The Traffic Helicopter gives advice and guidance but leaves decision-making up to the student. The Rescue Helicopter rushes in to help with supplies and support in a crisis.

Do any of these look familiar to you or your parent? Where do you feel parental involvement is acceptable and at what point does it cross the line?