I was in graduate school studying how to effectively challenge and support first-year college students when I first heard the term “helicopter parents”. In higher education, we use the term to describe parents of high school or college-aged students who do tasks the child’s capable of doing alone.
Helicopter parents can become so enmeshed in college admissions that they lose perspective on what their child needs. In this post you’ll learn why there’s nothing like college admissions to bring out the helicopter parent in you. You’ll also learn what to do if you find yourself tempted to hover over your child through the process.
Why It’s Tough Raising Parents
There are three common helicopter-parenting triggers that abound in the admissions process. There’s fear of not getting accepted, fear of not making the team, fear of not getting enough aid just to name a few. There’s also anxiety about the economy, the job market, and the world in general.
Believe it or not, there’s even peer pressure from other parents. When parents see other overinvolved parents, they feel pressure to do the same and often experience guilt if they don’t.
Helicopter parents can become so concerned with raising a good kid that they forget they already have one. When that happens, they tend to enable helplessness in their kids instead of empowering them.
ANT Killing Principles for Helicopter Parents and the Children that Love Them
Thoughts are powerful. They will either help or hinder you in the college admissions process and in life. Doctor Daniel Amen calls automatic negative thoughts ANTs because they can “invade your mind like ants at a picnic.” Even when the thoughts themselves aren’t negative, if they’re based on lies the results most certainly will be!
Thoughts influence how you feel, how you behave and the decisions you make. Unquestioned thoughts about college admissions and financial aid can make you sad, mad, nervous, or out of control. What’s more, they often result in poor decisions.
The Perfect Storm: ANTs, Helicopter Parents and the College Admissions Cycle
Consider the fact that the standard college application cycle is about 18 months long. It begins when you take the PSAT or ACT as a junior.
Colleges begin sending you VIP invitations to apply. Of course the colleges never mention the fact that all it takes to get on their “VIP” mailing list are the lowest test scores they’re willing to accept.
What does this mean for you? Even if you do apply, you probably won’t get in. Or worse, you get in but you don’t get enough aid to be able to attend. What comes as a shock to you is of no surprise to the college.
So why did they encourage you to apply? The more students apply, the more they can reject. This makes the college appear more selective. Simply put, they do it because it works for them.
Flattered by all the unsolicited attention, parents and kids start flirting with the idea of applying to schools without taking into account things like GPA, test scores and net price. You go on a few campus visits and before you know it you’re hopelessly in love with a school you have no chance of getting into, can’t afford or both.
It’s no wonder that by the end some parents have reached the point where they tell themselves “It’s only $20,000 in loans per year.” Sounds incredible? You bet!
The best way to fight ANTs that perpetrate a fraud is to review the admissions criteria. Fight fiction with facts. Make a table of these facts. Then have an open and honest family discussion about your kid’s chances of admission compared to last year’s entering freshman class.
3 Different Types of ANTs
ANTs reflect some of the many ways helicopter parents entertain a distorted reality. Here’s a sampling of some of the ANTs I encounter most often as a college consultant:
“Always” and “never” thinking is thinking in words like always, never, no one, everyone, every time, everything. For example, a helicopter parent may believe that everyone who attends a “good school” earns more money and gets more jobs.” If this sounds like you, your kids college list may consist of all eight Ivy League schools and no safety schools. Big mistake! Or perhaps you’re someone who wouldn’t be caught dead at a community college even if it means turning down a full-ride scholarship to pay full-price elsewhere.
Mind Reading is when you believe you know what another person is thinking even though they haven’t told you. For example, a helicopter parent may believe that only the very poorest will get any financial aid. If this sounds like you, you’re probably in the habit of disqualifying yourself. Simply put, you’re more likely to sabotage yourself than risk rejection. By not filing the FAFSA—Free Application for Federal Student Aid–these families are likely to forfeit federal student loans, work-study, state aid, PLUS loans for parents and even merit aid at some schools.
Thinking with your feelings is believing negative feelings without ever questioning them. For example, a helicopter parent may pass on to their children a feeling of hopelessness attached to the belief that “graduating in four years isn’t realistic anymore.” If this sounds like you, your biggest problem is your lack of planning. Focus on what you want instead of what you feel. Once what you want occupies more mental real estate than your feelings, you are much more likely to take action and achieve your goal. So what are you waiting for? Kill the ANTs.
Killing the ANTs That Steal Your Joy
To kill the ANTs you have to think about what you’re thinking. Whenever the college admissions process leaves you feeling sad, mad, nervous or out of control follow Dr. Amen’s three step formula:
- Write down your automatic negative thoughts (ANTs).
- Label them.
- Talk back to them. Challenge the thought.
Here are some ANT killing examples:
Species of ANT
Kill the ANT
|Everyone who attends a “good school” earns more money and gets more jobs.||
Always and Never Thinking
|That’s not true. The Wall Street Journal recently published a study showing that more CEOs and board members of Fortune 500 companies graduated from state schools than from so-called prestigious universities.
|Only the very poorest will get any financial aid.||
|I don’t know that for sure. The truth is, I will not know what I qualify for unless I apply.|
How to Turn ANTs into Action Plans
Focus on what you want, not what you don’t want and expect to make it happen. If you aren’t doing anything to make it happen, ask yourself: What will I do? And when will I do it? Write it all down.
|What do I want?||
What am I doing to make it happen? Or…
What will I do? When will I do it?
|Graduating in four years isn’t realistic anymore.||
I want to finish in four.
|I am taking community and online college classes while still in high school. Or…
Once in college, I will take one additional community college class every summer so I can finish in four.
Put it where you can see it and read it every day. The more you tell yourself what you want, the more your actions will start to match your thoughts so you can achieve it!
Recovering Helicopter Parents: How to Be Anxious for Nothing
Want to change the way you feel about the college admissions process? Change your thoughts by challenging them.
Want to change how you behave? Change your thoughts and the behavior that follows by turning ANTs into action plans. The more you do, the happier and more successful you’ll be.
What’s your biggest college admissions challenge?
Share your comments in the text box below.
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Change Your Brain Change Your Life – For a deeper dive into how to kill ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) go to the source. For this post, I adapted exercises from Dr. Daniel Amen’s Accelerated Workbook.
The information in this post is not a substitute for an evaluation or treatment by a competent medical specialist. If you believe you are in need of medical interventions please see a medical practitioner.