New research sheds light on how parents’ tendency to be overly anxious and protective affects their child’s academic performance in college. The study, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, identifies several interpersonal and intrapersonal processes that play a key role in linking parental overprotection to reduced academic confidence.
“I became interested in overparenting (or helicopter parenting as it is commonly known) and its link with college student academic adjustment for two reasons,” said lead author Mary B. Eberly Lewis, an associate professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.
“First, in my role as the chief academic advisor for my department for nearly 19 years, I met with many students who were fearful of making decisions about future classes or opportunities without parental input, students who felt responsible for their parents’ well-being, or students who had parents come with them to advising appointments and who asked the majority of the questions. I speculated that parents’ intrusiveness and hovering were undermining college students’ progress.”
“Second, I have a scholarly interest in parenting adolescents and emerging adults as the characteristics of those relationships can be a strong foundation from which youth can launch or can become an impediment that undermines their maturation,” Eberly Lewis explained.
Past research has looked at how different factors, such as a parent’s tendency to be overprotective, can affect a young adult’s development. For their new study, Eberly Lewis and her colleagues sought to examine how multiple factors could all impact a college student’s academic confidence. They proposed a model where a parent’s anxious overprotective parenting could negatively affect a student’s psychological distress and self-regulation via perceived hostility, which in turn affects their academic confidence.
The study involved 967 young adults, most of whom were women, with an average age of 18.71 years old. They were in either their first or second year of college and were recruited from introductory psychology classes at three universities in the Midwest and South regions of the United States.
More than half of the participants (60.3%) reported that they were from families where both of their parents were still married. About 12.3% of participants reported that their parents were never married, while 10.5% had parents who were divorced or separated and not remarried. Another 11.6% had divorced parents where at least one parent was remarried, and 3.3% had only one parent because the other had passed away.
In the study, the students completed assessments of academic adjustment, academic efficacy, and confidence in graduation. These three measures were combined into an academic confidence score. The students also completed measures of depressive symptoms, short-term and long-term self-regulation, anxious overprotective parenting, and parental hostility.
College students who reported heightened depressive symptoms and lower levels of self-regulation tended to have lower academic confidence.
Importantly, the researchers found that anxious overprotective parenting was associated with various indirect effects that negatively impacted a college student’s academic confidence. For example, mothers and fathers perceived to be high in anxious overprotective parenting also tended to be perceived as more hostile. This, in turn, predicted lower self-regulation in college students. Paternal hostility was also associated with increased depression.
“Parents who overprotect tend to treat their emerging adult offspring as young children — working to solve their problems, meddling in their personal business, involving themselves in their college students’ relationships, and structuring their adult children’s lives,” Eberly Lewis told PsyPost.
“Our study showed that when this overprotectiveness is coupled with hostility, that is, criticism, insults, frequent disagreements, and angry interactions during the transition to college, college students, in essence, shut down. They become depressed and unable to be planful, persistent, and follow through with tasks, which in turn, undermines their belief in being academically successful.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“The main caveat of the study is that the constructs we studied co-occur or are associated, but we cannot be certain about the causal links among them,” Eberly Lewis explained. “It could be that if college student performance and adjustment are low, parents might respond to their lack of progress with overprotectiveness and anger. Determining the direction of effects would certainly be a next step for a longitudinal study.”
“Other questions include who are the parents that are more likely to engage in overprotective parenting – are there certain personality attributes or environmental conditions that enhance such behavior? How do parents convey overprotectiveness through telephone calls and texting, particularly if their college student is living away at university? Other questions might address family contexts, such as parental divorce, single-parenthood, or marital conflict. This is a relatively recent area of research, so there are likely many more questions that can be examined.”
“Although I was the first author of this particular paper, the study, itself, is a collaborative effort with Professors Meredith McGinley (University of Wisconsin-Parkside) and Wendy Rote (University of South Florida),” Eberly Lewis added. “They, too, have intriguing perspectives for examining data from the larger study. I also must extend my appreciation for my graduate student, Justin Slater, and the many undergraduate students, particularly Maxine Toukhanian, for their assistance.”
The study, “Understanding the Link Between Anxious Parental Overprotection and Academic Confidence in Emerging Adults: Mediation through Interpersonal and Intrapersonal Processes“, was authored by Mary B. Eberly Lewis, Justin J. Slater, Meredith McGinley and Wendy M. Rote.