Helicopter Moms Hover Over Kids' Romantic Lives

Moms weep over breakups, read texts and even suggest double dates -- with them.

ByABC News
March 30, 2012, 1:23 PM

April 2, 2012— -- Jennifer Coburn freaked out when her 14-year-old daughter, Kate, received a text break-up after a short-lived romance with a boy she had met at camp.

Kate sailed through his rejection -- "I'm not sure how I feel about you anymore" -- with no hard feelings, but her mother just couldn't move on emotionally.

The San Diego author describes her obsession with Kate's private love life in a light-hearted article she wrote recently for Salon, "Her Breakup, My Heartbreak."

Coburn offered her daughter consolation so they could weep together over ice cream, Amy Winehouse music and "sappy" romantic comedies. But her daughter would have nothing of it.

"Do you need a hug?" wrote Coburn, 45. "Uh, do you?" replied her daughter.

Helicopter moms increasingly hover over their children's love lives, micromanaging everything from their Facebook accounts to how to dress on a date, according to therapists.

In the past, mothers have organized play dates, written college essays and even showed up at job interviews. Caving in to this 21st century phenomenon, several universities -- Smith College, Mt. Holyoke and Holy Cross, among others -- recently announced they will allow parents to write their children's own glowing admission recommendations.

But now, these mothers have landed in the romantic sphere, micromanaging dates and relationships, according to Larina Kase, a Philadelphia psychologist who specializes in child and adolescent anxiety.

She said helicopter parenting, particularly crossing privacy boundaries, raises anxiety levels in children and ultimately undermines their self-confidence.

"I have seen several families in which the mother is much more upset about the break-up than their son or daughter was," said Kase.

"Nine out of 10 times it comes from a good place -- usually love and fear," she said. "You love so much that you are afraid of them experiencing any kind of pain, including emotional pain."

In her private practice, Kase has counseled parents who ask their son or daughter to "practice" how they will communicate with a boyfriend or girlfriend, offering to review texts and emails.

Others excessively monitor their child's Facebook page and other communication -- often without permission -- then offer unsolicited advice.

"Moms get overly involved in shopping, outfit selection, hairstyles [with] daughters for dates," said Kase. "I have even had parents suggest double dates including the parents."

Helicopter Mom Trashes Girlfriend After Breakup

Often, interference can increase the likelihood of a breakup, according to Kase -- or cause hurtful misunderstandings.

Sheila Larson, a 43-year-old mother from New Jersey, said she has been an "over-involved" parent for most of her son's life.

"I dressed him, chose his friends, interfered with teachers," she said.

Once, not happy with her son's teacher, she intervened with the principal and had him transferred to another classroom. Later, she butted in to his love life.

"I'm ashamed to admit this, but when my 16-year-old son broke up with his girlfriend, he told me she broke up with him," said Larson. "I agonized and cried about it for a week. I even called her parents and begged them for some sort of explanation."

In a "moment of weakness," she became so upset that she called the girlfriend an epithet suggesting she was a lesbian for ditching her son.

"My son became upset with me, saying, 'How dare you speak that way about anyone,'" she said. "He then told me the real reason they had broken up: He was gay."

Today, her son is 18 and in college, and Larson has apologized. Therapy helped her understand her motives better.

"I am a stay-at-home mother. His father is a musician who is away for extended periods of time," she said. "Now, I realize that I used my son as a replacement."

Now, she lets him run his own life.

"While I miss being so close to him, I feel proud that he is independent," said Larson. "He even called me once to tell me a story about one of his dorm-mates' mother coming for the weekend and ruining a party weekend for his whole floor. He didn't say it, but I think he thinking, 'I'm sure glad you are not like that anymore, Mom.'"

Parents can learn to be supportive without helicoptering into private territory, according to Christine Mason McCaull, a former tech CEO and mother of six from San Francisco.

"What is your business is watching your kid go through the highs and lows of love and loss and change of learning to communicate their feelings, to understand what healthy relationships look like, to make sense of what's happening to them -- to make this aspect of the transition to being an emotional grownup," she said.

When a child is "in the throes of a break-up," McCaull, 45, urges parents just to be there for them.

"You pick up the phone when they call from college at 1 in the morning to cry," she said. "You drag them out of bed when they don't want to face a school day. You try to help them put it all in perspective that happiness comes from within, not from another person."

"You hope that they can love and be loved," said McCaull, "that their romantic life is a source of happiness for their entire lives."

Being hurt and making mistakes are part of the learning process, and sheltering children from pain does not help them grow, according to psychologist Kase.

She offers free resources on how to avoid helicoptering and raise a child's self-esteem on her website, Confident Club.

When parents allow their children to take risks, it sends an important message, according to Kase: "My parent trusts my ability to make good decisions and, therefore, my parent has confidence in my abilities."

As for Coburn and her heartache over her teenage daughter's break-up, both she and Kate have long gotten over it.

"I realize that becoming involved with my daughter's love life is a somewhat pathetic attempt to dip myself into the fountain of youth," she wrote. "Because the reality is that being the mother of a teenager is a reality check, a constant reminder that I am no longer young, nor will I ever be again."

Coburn admitted she is a helicopter mom, but one who "approaches family life with love, humor and plenty of self-deprecation."

Kate is now 15 and, according to her mother, "an absolute gem," active in Model United Nations, Mock Trial and sports.

"The most important boundary we have in our home is respect for one another," she told ABCNews.com.

"She handles my involvement like she does everything else -- in stride," said Coburn. "She always knows I have her best interest at heart, but she is also secure enough in our relationship to tell me if she feels I'm overstepping. Sometimes she's right; sometimes she's not."

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