Q&A: Advice on 'Helicopter Moms'

Helen Johnson, author of the book, "Don't Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money" (St. Martin's Press, 2000), is a consultant on parental relations for some of America's top universities. She spoke with "20/20" for its report about mothers who micromanage the lives of their college-aged children.

Johnson is more than familiar with "helicopter moms," the term now in vogue to describe some mothers who manage everything from class schedules to laundry and e-mail for their kids. "A helicopter mom is a mom who hovers over every state in her child's development, from basically ... in utero, through the college years and beyond," she said.

As much as these moms may be trying to help, Johnson says, they may ultimately set their children up for a fall in adulthood.

"In taking over, they are sending a profound message: You are not capable of handling your life," she said.

She answers questions from "20/20" viewers below.

Vicki in Alaska writes:

My child is now 16 -- what are some of the most important skills he needs to know by the time he's college-aged and a young adult?

Helen Johnson:

Dear Vicki,

What a good question! It's a pleasure to witness a mom who is planning ahead.

I would say the important skills are self-reliance, a capacity to handle adversity and a strong sense of personal values. These translate into proactively handling the tasks of life (getting up in the morning, handling homework independently, making choices about food, learning to do one's own laundry and taking care of spending money in a responsible way), meeting adversities and challenges and learning from and reflecting on mistakes made along the way (interacting directly with teachers and other authority figures when grade disputes, late papers/assignments, and unacceptable behavior mean consequences), forging a strong sense of personal values (being able to stand up to peer pressure, having a clear idea of what constitutes a moral life and the behaviors that go along with that sense of morality and ethics). There are ways that you, as a parent, can advise and counsel your high school student to begin the process of handling these emerging adult tasks and responsibilities. I would suggest giving him increasingly more freedom to make choices as he goes through the next couple of years before college. This may mean, perhaps, suspending or providing more leniency on curfews (if you have one) while at the same time making it clear what behavior you expect to go along with the increasing freedom. Your job now is to help him get ready for the total freedom and responsibility of making many choices when he goes away to college.

Gloria in New Rochelle, N.Y., writes:

Could it be possible that the helicopter moms find that in they were not sufficiently cared for in their own lives, and are thus trying to overcompensate in their children's lives?

Helen Johnson:

Dear Gloria,

I think that this is certainly possible; however, I would hope that parents would recognize that their children are not responsible for making them feel better about their own upbringing. I would hope that parents who feel they were not cared for would keep that need separate from their relationship with their own children. Easier said than done, in some instances. While it is true that each generation tries to make up for the inadequacies of the generation that preceded them, it's really important for parents to be the adults and not burden their children with "fixing" their feelings of disappointment and disconnection. I'm afraid the level of "hyper-parenting" we are witnessing today has more to do with parents' needs to feel important and needed than it does with their child's needs.

Lynn Smith in Augusta, Ga., writes:

Can you describe a "healthy" level of parental involvement in a high school student's life? Thank you.

Helen Johnson

Dear Lynn,

In general, I think a parent's most effective role with a high school student is to be a mentor -- discussing, guiding, providing alternative ways to approach issues and problems, sharing personal values and stories, and, above all, listening very carefully to your emerging adult's thoughts and feelings. Unless there are extenuating circumstances (severe learning or physical disabilities) which make it necessary for a parent to intervene in a student's educational experience, it should be possible for a high school student to take responsibility for his or her life in school and in social and extracurricular life without parental involvement. That means taking responsibility for homework, social interactions, relationships with authority figures (teachers, coaches, ministers, other parents) and in the process learning the important lessons of taking responsibility for actions and consequences. One of the saddest realities of college life today is that too many students arrive on campus having had no experience with managing their life. I urge you to give your son or daughter every opportunity to be an effective individual in every aspect of his or her life. That means allowing mistakes to be made and consequences to be experienced and dealt with -- without a parent stepping in to "fix" a problem. In this way, you can send a confident, self-assured and responsible emerging adult off to college, knowing that he or she has had experience (while still within your safety net) in dealing with adversity.

The healthiest relationships I've seen between parents and emerging adult children is when parents are able to step back from being an "in control" parent to acting as a mentor — begin now thinking of what skills and capacities you want you child to have practiced before they are totally on their own at college and beyond. This means being authoritative (guiding, counseling), making your expectations clear and also providing lots of support, understanding and love when difficulties arise.

Brandon in Palos Park, Ill., writes:

Right now my mom is going through a very financially bloody divorce. Before the divorce though I was a student at University of Iowa. I would receive at least five to seven phone calls a day from home, and everything from my checking account to my cell phone bill was monitored by my mom. Well, I failed out of Iowa, because when problems arose I couldn't handle them on my own. I am 22 and back at home with mom and the problem has only become worse. I am trying to finish my associate's degree at Moraine Valley, but I see the same things happening as what happened in Iowa. Is there anything I can tell my mom without shattering her that her concern is only inhibiting me from accomplishing my own goals?

Helen Johnson

Dear Brandon,

I'm sorry that you are having a tough time managing your relationship with your mom. Good for you that you're trying to finish your education, despite the challenges you face. Living at home while in college is often difficult, as parents tend to revert to thinking of you as a high school student and want to take control of aspects of your life that you need to be learning to handle on your own. Is it possible for you to live on campus? Perhaps you can get some advice from the financial aid office and a student affairs counselor who might help you make a plan for declaring yourself independent and, thus, be eligible for enough aid to life independently while you finish school. If that's not possible, you need to sit down with your mom and let her know that you care for her very much and appreciate the difficulties she's going through, but that it is really important for you to negotiate more independence in your life.

Buy my book! It will definitely help your mother figure out how to develop an appropriate relationship with you as you become more and more independent over the next few years.

Holly Hargraves in Massachusetts writes:

Not a question — a comment. I just went to a teacher party tonight and talked about this article. Helicopter moms, of course, are very intrusive at the middle school and high school level. But one woman at the party remarked that the problem goes on past college and into the workplace. She works in human resources and says she has had mothers call her to ask about why a son was fired, complain that a daughter doesn't like her new boss, request transfers to other departments, etc. She says that HR people all have stories to tell about these meddling mothers, and she looked forward to sharing the term "helicopter mother" with her colleagues.

Helen Johnson

Dear Holly,

You are so right! This is an increasingly troubling problem in both graduate schools and workplaces today. This is the result of totally inappropriate parental involvement and it's a sad phenomenon. It is a disturbing fact that many parents have not done their critical job of preparing their child for the responsibilities of adult life. There are myriad reasons for this reality, not the least of which is that parents are unable to tolerate their "children" experiencing any kind of discomfort. This is a very troubling outcome of the failure of parents to raise self-reliant, independent young adults.

Julia Jones in Ontario, Canada, writes:

Do you think that perhaps what may do more harm than parents who don't let go, are parents who let go too quickly? Is it really OK for a parent to see their kid hit 18 and boot them off to school and only keep in touch for obligatory holidays and when there's a death in the family?

I completely agree that parents should NOT be doing their kids chores, or work, or treating them like a child when they are an adult, but where is the line drawn? Should there at least be visits every so often? Or a weekly phone call to catch up? I ask as a student who would have loved to have had a semi-hovering parent in school, and was forced into isolation from the family on the pretense that I was no longer part of the immediate family because I was no longer living at home.

Helen Johnson

Dear Julia,

As with so many things in life, I think there's a nice middle ground here. I have never advocated "letting go," because I think it's the wrong image for what could be a more realistic response to changing relationships. The middle ground is involves shifting your parenting style to being that of a mentor/trusted guide to your emerging adult son or daughter -- a shift in parenting style that more appropriately fits the eventual relationship between a parent and fully adult child. The college years are ones that require late adolescents to try out new identifies and experiment with a measure of autonomy from their family of origin. In no way does this mean, to me, that there needs to be a disconnection on a personal and emotional level. The problem occurs when parents are unable to accommodate or stand in the way of the necessary developmental steps that young adult NEED to make in order to be fully independent. The beauty of human relationships is that they can grow and change over time, mindful of the profound interconnectedness that defines a family. I think my parents' generation erred on the side of "kick them out of the nest" and this generation seems to be making the mistake of not letting their kids try their wings. Thanks for your feedback!

Kristi in Georgia writes:

My own mother would have certainly fallen into the [helicopter mom] category, and I have NEVER felt like I could not handle my own life. After her death, I only felt profound appreciation for what she had done for me while I was in college and all that she had taught me.

Helen Johnson

Dear Kristi,

What is a lovely comment; how nice it must be to feel such gratitude. My suspicion is that your mother did what I think really effective parents do — provide their kids with appropriate expectations and lots of caring and support. I would guess that your capacity to handle your own life is due, in part, to this type of parenting. There is a vast difference between hovering and appropriate interest and caring. Sounds like your mom struck that balance.

Jamie writes:

Dear Helen,

It's just me and my mom and we're a lot like roommates at times. I want to get married and start a family while going to college like my mom did. My mom, on the other hand, wants me to wait to get married until I'm out of college, also she wants me to live at home while at college. I know it would be easier to wait, but I plan to be in college for a while and I think if my mom could do it, so could I. When my mom and dad married they really had no game plan, but at least I'm saving up money and trying not to be too hasty with things. I also plan to stay close by so it's not like we wouldn't see each other. I would really like to hear some of your advice about this please.

Helen Johnson

Dear Jamie,

It sounds as though you are not yet in college and have many questions on what choices you'll make in the next few years. While it's a lovely sentiment that you would like to emulate your mother's choices, I would urge you to think about what would be right for you when you face these big decisions. I have to agree with your mom that waiting until you're out of college is a wiser choice. You are going to grow and change so much in the next few years that it would be hard to go to college, explore all of your life options as an independent adult, and accommodate all of those changes in yourself as well as in a potential spouse.

You are young (I assume!) and hopefully have 50 or 60 years ahead to be married and enjoy that special relationship. Your task now is to find out who you are, think about what kind of life you wish to lead, and develop your skills so that you can be a fully independent adult in the world. That is a big job in itself, without adding a family to the mix. I would disagree with you mom that it's a good idea for you to live at home while you're in college. Although that might be necessary for financial reasons, I would urge you to try to live on your own for a while before you take the big step of marriage. Perhaps your mom feels the normal sadness that comes with seeing a child move on with his or her life, but I hope you'll be able to talk with her about that and realize that you will always be warmly connected to each other. There are books that deal with these changes (mine included!) that might be helpful for you and your mom to read together. You might suggest that your mom read "Empty Nest, Full Heart" to start with. Good luck.

Gail in Pennsylvania writes:

My 14-year-old daughter thinks I need a job or a hobby. In other words, she thinks I am way too involved in her life. Frankly, I wish I wasn't so involved. "Spying" on my kids isn't my favorite activity.

Unfortunately, my daughter hasn't been a perfect angel, and her friends are even worse. They think about alcohol morning, noon and night. I have already caught them stealing vodka and sharing it with their friends. My daughter and her friends have also posted inappropriate photos of themselves on the Internet. Does keeping on eye on this make me a "helicopter mom" or a mother given no choice but to micromanange her child's behavior? Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks so much!

Helen Johnson

Dear Gail,

You're certainly not alone in facing the daily challenges of raising a teenager in this culture. A 14-year-old who is engaging in this kind of acting out is a serious worry, for you and for her capacity to develop in appropriate ways. It sounds as though you could benefit from some counseling and support from professionals on these issues. While peer pressure and friends play an enormous role in young people's choices and behavior, parents can and do have significant influence (even though your daughter may not acknowledge that you do!). Given her current behavior at 14, I fear she is headed for very serious problems and I think you should engage in far more than "spying" or micromanaging. I believe you need to be very involved at this stage, but it needs to be more than judging or scolding her for her behavior. Teenagers act out for reasons and it's critical that you get to the heart of what those reasons are. You not only have the choice, but I think you need to take steps — and soon — to get some help. There are strategies that you can use to turn this situation around, but it sounds like professional help is needed. I wish you well.

Tammy Stuhr in Utica, N.Y., writes:

I have a friend who involves herself in her children's romantic relationships to the point of interfering in their arguments. She also does everything for her college-aged child and high school student from laundry to cooking to buying their friends' birthday presents.She has asked me advice for what she is doing wrong since her child is sneaking out and yelling and cussing at her. How/what would you advice her?

Helen Johnson

Dear Tammy,

Your friend certainly sounds like a typical hovering parent, but she seems to have taken it to a dramatic level. If she were my friend, I'd ask her some questions: What is your eventual goal in involving yourself so much in your children's lives? What needs are you getting met by inserting yourself in all of your children's activities? What do you hope your children will be capable of doing for themselves when they become young adults out in the world on their own? Do you think it is important for your children to learn to manage their own lives? What would that look like to you?

It's common for parents these days to hope that they will be their kids' best friends and that their children will "like" them. While that may satisfy some immediate (however inappropriate) need for the parent, it doesn't constitute appropriate parenting behavior. It's time for her to stop being a doormat for her children and set some expectations for their behavior, but first she needs to do a bit of soul searching on what her behavior is doing to keep her children dependent and, I must say, not very polite or functional. Tolerating this behavior doesn't help any of them live together and respect one another. It also teaches terrible lessons in how the children will eventually treat their colleagues, spouses and friends. I hope you can approach your friend with kindness and be willing to listen to her fears and concerns. That would be a wonderful gift.