Texas Tech University

How Close is Too Close? Therapist Discusses Parental Involvement in College

Heidi Toth

August 19, 2015

Klinton Hobbs said parents should offer advice and support to their children in college, but not do the work for them.

Move In Day

The first semester of college for most students is their first time away from home, their first opportunity to make all of their own choices, their first taste of freedom. It can be exhilarating for students who are ready for it and difficult or catastrophic for teenagers who never learned discipline, self-motivation or how to recover from failure, sometimes because well-meaning parents did too much to make life easy for their children.

Klinton Hobbs, an assistant director of the Student Counseling Center at Texas Tech University, spoke about the hazards of parents doing too much for their children. While the initial outcomes may be good – a 4.0 GPA in high school, getting into college – students whose paths to college have been motivated or eased entirely by their parents can find themselves unable to cope with problems resulting from living independently.

This trend, known as overparenting, is rising to the surface as colleges admit young adults who have excellent resumes but arrive on campus without the ability to take care of themselves emotionally or push themselves to go to class, get good grades or get enough sleep. Parents focus so much on ensuring success that their children are never taught to cope with failure, or have held and may continue to hold children to such high standards that any setback is seen as failure.

“It's kind of the difference between process and outcome,” Hobbs said. “The process is allowing your child to stumble and fall before they get to college so they know how to pick themselves back up, whereas the outcome is straight As and a 4.0.

“When you're not that sole source of accountability for your child, they may not come into college with a 4.0. But they may know what to do if they get into trouble. Sometimes students get here and don't know how to take care of themselves.”

The perils of freedom and parents paying for tuition

Students whose parents are overly involved in their decision-making often respond in one of two ways when they get to college, Hobbs said. Some try to maintain the overparenting relationship, calling and texting daily and relying on their parents to make their decisions for them from hundreds of miles away. Over time that doesn't fit as well.

College students doing homework

The other extreme is students who, for the first time, don't have a bedtime or anyone making them attend class or do homework, so they don't. Without the external accountability from their parents, they often get behind on coursework and can get failing grades.

“A lot of times it's a shock for students when they get to college and have so much more freedom,” he said.

Students who never endured failure up to this point may become overwhelmed and not able to get out of the rut, thus exacerbating the problem.

Who pays for college can contribute to overparenting as well. This trend appeared to increase after the recession in 2007 and 2008. Hobbs said he noticed some parents who may have been on a tighter budget than before felt more pressure to have their child enter college, succeed and “get their money's worth.”

This line of thinking, although logical to the parent, can put significant pressure on a student. Hobbs spoke with a student whose father offered pay for college if his child majored in engineering. The child did, but discovered he didn't like the work. He liked theatre arts, but if he changed his major he'd be paying for college himself.

Parents who pay for school may feel entitled to monitor their child's grades online or intervene with professors. Children who have been overparented tend to accept this.

“You really can't overestimate the sense of obligation created by a parent paying for school,” he said.

These tendencies generally come from a good place, Hobbs said. Parents think if their child gets into a good college and get a good degree he'll get a good job after college and his parents won't have to worry about him. Especially during the recession, parents may have felt the stakes were high and their child needed to do well.

A parent being this invested in a good outcome leads the child to feel even more guilt or anxiety about the situation. They may be afraid to tell mom or dad they failed a test, which can lead to a failing or lower grade. This may lead to less healthy ways of coping, such as ignoring the problem, substance abuse or no longer attending class, which causes a difficult situation to spiral. Many parents feel betrayed and angry when they hear this news.

Finding the right amount of parenting

The best time to prepare a child to succeed in college is years before he or she actually gets to college. Hobbs said parents of a freshman in high school should be firm and flexible, letting him make his own decisions wherever possible. Yes, he said, this will mean he may make some decisions with which his parents don't agree, but letting him make them and then experience the consequences helps the student learn to make better decisions on his own down the line.

Teen and Mom

“The challenge for a parent is to be able to watch and support your student even if they make mistakes and allow them to make those mistakes,” Hobbs said.

Parents should talk to their children, give advice and offer support, but not make the decisions for them. They should be careful about making all decisions for the child without any input. They also should not remove the consequences of those mistakes once made. Teenagers must understand the consequences of not doing homework are failing a test or class, not being able to play sports or seeing their GPA take a hit.

For parents who want their child to get into a good college and get scholarships, this can be difficult, Hobbs admitted. However, to be successful in college, children must be able to motivate themselves and pick themselves up after a setback.

“We learn from consequences, and if parents step in and remove those consequences no lessons are learned,” he said.

Once their child starts college, parents should continue offering advice and support. Stay in contact, Hobbs, advised, but not with daily phone calls. Be aware of the resources Texas Tech offers – free tutoring, group and individual counseling, career advice – and direct struggling students to those resources. It should stop there, though. If a child is failing classes, his parents may suggest getting a tutor or cutting back on hours at work. Parents shouldn't call the tutoring center and set up an appointment or call their child's boss to rearrange the schedule.

He also said parents need to monitor their emotional reactions when children call with bad news. They are more likely to ask for help if they know they can talk to their parents openly.

Parents, roommates and friends should watch for drastic changes in indicative of depression or other mental illness, which often presents for the first time in young adults. At that point, take action.

“If you're ever worried about your child's safety, absolutely ask about it,” he said.