The real (& unfortunate) outcomes of too much parental control

We’ve been reading loads of articles in the past week-- including this one from the NYTimes --about the overly involved--sometimes referred to as “snowplow”--parent in adolescents’ lives. I work with parents of this cohort everyday and see the effects--or not--firsthand of parental oversight. First of all, it’s critical to understand that this is a global phenomenon. My families--none of which live in the US--hold passports and live in countries such as India, Switzerland, China, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Spain, Italy, Malaysia, UAE, Singapore … I work with and have seen parenting from one extreme to the other: on one side of the spectrum there are the parents I have never met or corresponded with and whose child is my client, 100%. The other side of the spectrum is the parent who is, essentially, the mind and body of that child (ie: responds to emails on child’s behalf, does his work for him, etc.).

In every case where the child truly took control of his life when I was working with him--from scheduling appointments with me to following up with homework to keeping his parents in the loop to figuring out where he would best fit into university and ultimately only sharing his applications with his parents at the time of submission (if even then)--*turned out to be a success*. I want to be very clear about this: a success. Every one. Didn’t matter the university. It mattered the young adult’s confidence in himself, ability to be independent and knowing who he was. He was undoubtedly in various forms the one who, at college, sought out what interested him, was proactive in seeking engagement with faculty and peers, was able to identify and seek out support when needed, took advantage of what was on offer and was his own best advocate. This young adult has an independent, survivor mentality and, even in difficult times throughout life, will be able to hone his instincts and his abilities to come out ahead. On his own.

Now the other extreme. It’s disheartening as the result is oftentimes the opposite of the intention [by the parent]. The results, granted in my small case-study pool, are not as exact as the extreme above, but in no instance was the student as independent, engaged, confident and “able” as the student who was not parented by helicopters or snowplows. In no way. In the worst of situations I have students who were so directed, coddled, managed by their parents that even in their late 20’s there is no decision they can make without prior consultation with their parents, and in many of these cases no instance where she has “attained” something without some heavy influence coming from her parents (ie: money, job connections, partner, vacation plans, grad school, etc.). She is struggling, and in some cases she does not know it [yet]. I have other students who were perhaps less “managed” but managed nonetheless who, once given the opportunity for independence, have been able to thrive. They are not able to live fully independent lives, however, as the managing continues to some extent. The young adults are debilitated by this; I see a missed opportunity to explore or see something that interested them, take a risk that would have given them greater perspective on life, or meet or be in a community that would have shaken their own bubble a bit, making them more open-minded, nimble and more forceful contributor to society. They do not know what makes them happy and are unable to therefore seek it out. They are still not able to take failure with grace.

[And on that note of contributing to society (because many saying the admissions process is broken because students “do” community service because they are told to) and this, I have found, is worth noting (and perhaps a sociologist can opine): those who truly contribute to society in meaningful ways are those kids who were given much more freedom to explore, fail, try what truly interested them (as opposed to what their parents thought should) and had parents that were less “involved” in their day-to-day decisions and activities growing up.]

Of course every young adult--just like every adult--develops at a different pace. Some need more guidance, a stronger helping hand. This is essential for us to accept. It is also essential for us to understand, then, how to guide young adults keeping in mind that each one will need her unique pace.

I want to leave you with this, as I think about it every day. A student comes to me regularly and tells me she wants to be an engineer. I ask her why. She can never answer the question, week after week, month after month. Her parents ask me to just let her pursue her dreams and to stop asking the question. I persist because it is clear to me the thought has never truly been processed; she does not exude happiness when she tells me she wants to be an engineer. Her understanding of what an engineer is still very unclear. I asked her last week if we could start from the beginning, asking her to tell me about herself, her interests, likes, dislikes. I guide her a bit to get moving on this. She is stuck. She says science. I say, “No. Interests.” She draws a blank. I share mine with her. They are trivial and that’s the point. Chocolate. Reading. Languages. She finally looked up at me and said this, “I am afraid I don’t know myself well enough to even tell you what I like. I have no idea.”

Her mom asked me to send all emails through her going forward. I will resist.

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