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‘Snowplow parents’ overly involved in college students’ lives

Astrid Franco and Jessica Khokhlan attend UMass Boston.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Astrid Franco and Jessica Khokhlan attend UMass Boston.

At Boston University, one father was so upset over his daughter’s A-minus final grade that he called the professor to complain, and then the department chair, and then the academic dean.

At Boston College, parents have called Residential Life staffers to complain about minor roommate issues. At Simmons, school officials have fielded parental concerns about noise, gluten-free diets, and food allergies. One mother called to request more variety on the salad bar.

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“This is not how all parents of college students behave,” says Sarah Neill, dean of students at Simmons. “But there has been a real shift in the extent to which parents are involved and invested in the lives of their students.”

Everyone has heard of parents who do their grade schooler’s science project or are overly involved in their kids’ social lives. But the infamous helicopter parents, hovering over their younger children, are now transitioning into so-called snowplow parents, trying to smooth a path for their kids even after they’ve started college.

College officials know the first few months of school can be fraught because of social or academic issues. They hope that by parents’ weekend in early fall, or at least by Thanksgiving break, students and parents feel more settled, less codependent.

Franco and Khokhlan said their parents were very frequently in touch with them during their early college years.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Franco and Khokhlan said their parents were very frequently in touch with them during their early college years.

“It’s just as much a transition for the parent as for the child,” says Paul Chebator, dean of students at Boston College.

A growing number can’t seem to let go. Blame it on technology or anxiety or habit — some parents remain so involved that they are leaving their college-age kids anxious, depressed, and ill-equipped to deal with matters both small and large, according to experts.

‘We have a pretty strict policy whereby we are not allowed to talk to parents about our students.’

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One study, published online in February in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, found that over-controlling parents undermine the competence and confidence of college students and can negatively affect the parent-student relationship.

“Parents need to understand they’re not giving their children a chance to develop competency, a feeling of pride and well-being,” says Holly Schiffrin, a psychology professor at The University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., and co-author of the study. “Children are not developing the skills they need to become fully functioning adults.”

Schiffrin decided to conduct the study after hearing stories in her senior seminar on parenting. There was the young woman who had left campus to visit a friend at another college. When her parents didn’t hear from her for 24 hours, they had an Amber Alert, or missing child report, issued.

Another student told of interviewing a young man for a summer job while his mother stood outside, listening. “She knocked on the door during the interview and asked to come in,” Schiffrin says. The applicant was not hired.

Eleanor Green, a Boston restaurateur, sees such parents, too.

“We see snowplow parents when they come in with their son or daughter to apply for a job,” says Green, whose family owns several restaurants, including West on Centre in West Roxbury. “They say things like, ‘I’m here with my son, Mark, to apply for a bus boy position.’ Mark is standing there not saying a word. We’re thinking if Mark can’t talk to us, how can he interact with our staff and customers?”

Schiffrin says people need three basic skills to be happy: they need to feel independent, competent, and able to form and maintain relationships with others. The study found all three were negatively affected by overly involved parents.

“Parents have the delusion that what they’re doing is helping,” she said, “but it’s okay to let your kid fail in safe circumstances.”

College has always been, in part, an education in separation, a time of transitioning from adolescent to adult. But some administrators say they see greater parental involvement postponing that.

“It’s to the point where some of our students not only have never experienced adversity before, but they have no idea how to deal with it when they do face it,” says Chebator. “What to most people might be a relatively minor issue becomes a major life crisis.”

Such students are referred to as “teacups.” “They’re so fragile, they break easily,” he says.

And of course, technology enables kids and parents to be in constant contact. Schiffrin says one study of college freshmen and sophomores has shown that on average, students are communicating with their parents twice a day — and about three-quarters of them felt that was appropriate.

Professor Barbara Okun, who teaches counseling psychology at Northeastern University and has a private practice, says a client recently told her about going on a trip with other mothers.

“She said these other women were on the phone seven or eight times a day with their college kids,” says Okun. “I had to say it’s disturbed and disturbing, but it’s very common these days.”

Okun and others believe that parents often try to keep the bonds tight as much for their own sake as their child’s. “They think they’re doing it for their kids, but they’re doing it for themselves,” Okun says. “They need to be needed.”

Astrid Franco, 21, of Framingham, lived away from home her first two years at UMass Boston and got constant calls and messages from her parents. “I’d be out with friends and I’d get a text from my mom, ‘What are you doing?’ With time, I stopped answering and they wondered why. I felt it was being nosy,” says Franco, now a senior.

Her friend, Jessica Khokhlan, has lived at home in Norton and commuted to UMass Boston since she was a freshman. “At first, my mother would call me two or three times a day,” says Khokhlan, who is also a senior. “She wanted me to take the train home with her. But I needed to stay on campus longer. Then she’d call and ask, ‘When are you coming home?’ ”

The past two years haven’t been as bad, she says. “I’ve spoken to my mother about it and she said that I was only 18 traveling back and forth to Boston so she was pretty much making sure I was alive.”

In one extreme case of parental over-involvement, a college senior in December 2012 won a protective order against her parents for stalking and harassing her. Aubrey Ireland, 21, told a Cincinnati judge that her parents often drove 600 miles from their Kansas home to the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, unannounced, to meet with college officials, and falsely accused her of promiscuity, drug use, and mental problems.

Her parents, Julie and David Ireland, admitted in court that they installed monitoring software on their daughter’s laptop and cellphone. But they said they had her best interests at heart. “She’s an only child who was catered to all her life by loving parents,” her mother told the judge.

Donna Pincus is a psychologist who directs the child and adolescent fear and anxiety treatment program at Boston University. Her recent book, “Growing up Brave,” offers parents advice on how to modify their behavior to allow for success and confidence among their children.

“Sometimes, kids need to feel the snow,” she says of snowplow parents. “It brings on such a feeling of confidence in yourself if you know how to navigate your way though life.”

Many colleges now offer parent orientation, which takes place simultaneously with, but separately from, student orientation. Sessions deal with what their children can expect, and how parents can best support them.

“The reality is that parents are here to stay, and it’s important for us to engage them in ways that can be helpful to them and their students,” says Neill.

Those who work with college students see the occasional parents who take the opposite approach: they cut way back on contact, believing their kid needs to be wholly independent.

Schiffrin says that’s also not ideal. “It has to be a gradual process where the adolescent is taking on more and more responsibility so they get to college with these skills.”

Many schools have written policies for dealing with calls from anxious or angry parents. Federal law prohibits schools from disclosing information about students 18 and older without their consent.

“We have a pretty strict policy whereby we are not allowed to talk to parents about our students,” says Elizabeth Mehren, a BU journalism professor. “It’s certainly clear that our relationship is with the students.”

At Boston College, Chebator sometimes hears students refer to parents as their best friends.

“I understand that, but you can’t just be a friend, you have to be a parent,” he says. “You need to support your kids and make sure they have the information they need to make a decision, and sometimes you have to give them the opportunity to fail or else they won’t be prepared to deal with the larger problems all of us have to deal with in life.”

Bella English can be reached at bella.english@globe.com.

CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version incorrectly described West on Centre’s location. It is in West Roxbury.

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