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How to Keep Your Helicopter Parents From Ruining Your Career


Helicopter parents are usually the province of parenting blogs and editorials, not so much career blogs like ours. But, the micromanaging doesn’t necessarily stop when kids are small – or even when they graduate from college and go out into the world to get a job. If your parents are the helicopter variety, you’re probably kind of embarrassed and confused about how to get them to lay off and let you make your own decisions. Worse, you might find yourself without the kind of real-life skills it takes to build your career, manage your finances, and just plain survive. If this is you, don’t despair. You can escape the meddling and become independent. Here’s how.

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(Photo Credit: the UMF/Flickr)

The first step is admitting that there’s a problem. “Helicopter parent” is a pretty pejorative description; if you like your folks, it might sting to even apply it. Just remember that figuring this out is an internal process that doesn’t involve them. You’re not trying to come up with a mean new name to call your parents at the holidays – you’re just trying to keep any negative old patterns from persisting.

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That said, you might have a problem, if your parents…

  • …have ever been on a job interview with you. The good news is, you’re not alone: according to a 2012 Adecco survey, 8 percent of grads reported that a parent had accompanied them to a job interview … while 3 percent said Mom or Dad sat in on the conversation with the hiring manager.
  • …often solve your problems for you. A study out of the University of Indiana found that 38 percent of freshmen and 29 percent of seniors said that their parents solved their problems “very often” or “sometimes,” according to The Huffington Post, while a Pew Research Survey showed that 73 percent of parents in their 40s or 50s had given financial assistance to an adult child in 2012, not all of it related to tuition and college expenses.
  • …assert control over your decisions or the minor details of your life. It’s difficult to find hard data on how many parents insist on having a say in their adult children’s decisions, but it’s safe to say that the kind of assistance helicopter parents provide often comes with a price. If your parents are that invested in removing obstacles from your path, it probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that they think they get a vote about your life and career choices.

OK, Fine, Yes. I Have Helicopter Parents. What Now?

1. Set boundaries.

Easier said than done, of course, but until you draw a line, you can’t really blame your parents for crossing it. It doesn’t need to be a big discussion about your independence. Decide for yourself how much involvement you want from your parents in various areas of your life, and then gently assert your right to privacy and autonomy where appropriate.

The best way to set boundaries is practice what you preach, and that means paying your own way as soon as possible. The recession was especially hard on new workers without a foothold in their industries, and the real value of wages is down compared with before the economy faltered. You don’t need to feel bad if you’ve needed help, but you do need to stand on your own two feet as soon as practically possible.

2. Practice, practice, practice.

Recognize that you’re trying to undo several decades of over-involvement, and it won’t happen overnight. Especially at first, you’re likely to look back and realize that you should have been firmer – or more forgiving. Remember that you’re trying to build a new pattern, and that means repeating the behavior before it becomes second nature.

3. Be kind to yourself … and to them.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of looking for someone to blame, either yourself or your parents: “It’s their fault I can’t change a tire!” or “I’m scared to negotiate my salary, because I’m a big loser,” etc., and so on. Don’t fall down the rabbit hole of blame and recrimination, whether it’s directed toward them or yourself. This is good practice: in your long career, you’ll often need to remind yourself (and your co-workers) that solving the problem is more important than looking for someone to pin it on. Start now.

4. Learn how to do the stuff adults need to do.

When you discover that you can’t do something that successful professionals need to be able to do, whether it’s manage your 401(k) or make a healthy dinner, don’t get discouraged. Forge ahead and learn the skill you need to learn. No one is born knowing how to adult. Adulting happens while you’re doing it.

5. Ask for help second, and not from them.

With the best intentions, your loving parents have trained you to look to them whenever you have a problem. Don’t. When you come across an obstacle in your path, take a deep breath, assess the problem, and try to solve it on your own. And, if you find that you don’t yet have the tools to tackle the issue, ask a friend or colleague or mentor for help. (Just remember to be respectful of other people’s time. Your co-worker is going to be less enthused than your parents about putting away her priorities for the moment to attend to yours.)

By asking for help from people outside your family, you’ll learn a new thing and build your network at the same time, which means that you’ll be less likely to need Mom or Dad to sit in on that next job interview.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you have helicopter parents … or work with someone who does? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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