DR Claire Bohan had just received phone calls from two anxious mothers. The women had contacted Bohan, director of student support and development at Dublin City University, about difficulties their daughters were having with their courses.
Both first years were unhappy with their choice of programme and were having second thoughts about continuing, even though they were nearing the end of the academic year. But instead of speaking to the college, the students had told their mothers, who had then spoken to the college on their behalf.
But since both girls were over the age of 18, Bohan couldn’t discuss their issues with their mothers — this policy is outlined in the college’s parenting guide, which is sent out to the parents of every first year. “It’s not the issue of mums ringing, it’s the stress that students seem to put on their parents to sort something out for them — something for which they really need to take responsibility themselves.
“They should take that first step themselves, rather than getting their parents to intervene,” Dr Bohan says. Last year, the college introduced a life-skills programme covering the professional and academic sectors, along with personal support and life coaching to build resilience.
The same week I spoke with Bohan, a copy of psychotherapist Stella O’Malley’s book, Cotton Wool Kids, landed on my desk.
This examines the effects on Irish children of over-parenting or ‘helicopter’ parenting — O’Malley says that modern Irish children are coddled and over-parented.
At primary and second-level education, their days are structured, while home life is packed with scheduled activities, from ‘playdates,’ to organised sports to extra-curricular grinds.
The belief is that this micro-management, or ‘hot-housing’, is good parenting, says O’Malley. However, she says an overly-structured, overly protective childhood and early adolescence results in insecure ‘kidults’, who display a learned helplessness, anxiety, and a lack of resilience in dealing with life’s challenges.
O’Malley was inspired to write her book by two emerging trends.
Increasing numbers of anxious parents were arriving in her office, stressed, she says, from juggling full-time work with transporting children around the blizzard of activities and classes they believed were necessary to give them the ‘edge’.
O’Malley also had anxious 18-25-year-old clients seeking her advice and guidance.
“They’d never had a moment to be alone, and they were like frightened rabbits,” she says.
“It’s about learned helplessness. They’re getting strong messages from their parents that they cannot function properly in the world without them.
“The kids become anxious and scared,” says O’Malley.
This new parenting culture results from a “warped” perception that you’re a good parent if your child doesn’t want to leave your side.
However, being driven everywhere doesn’t encourage independence.
Structured play-dates don’t lead to deep friendships, so children don’t learn to survive being let down.
This ‘fix-it’ mentality doesn’t stop at the Leaving Certificate — such parents will make the final decision on what their child will study and will even fill out the CAO form.
Once students are on campus — in 2013-2014 there were 41,000 first-year students in third-level education in Ireland — parents continue to intervene in the college lives of the ‘kidults.’
They familiarise themselves with lecture timetables to know where they are at a particular time of the day, and even phone in the mornings to get the student up in time for the first class.
And, as students prepare for their summer exams, some parents will make it their business to know what papers their children are taking, and when.
“Today, parents are very involved in a student’s life,” says Nóirín Deady, first-year experience coordinator and guidance counsellor at University College Cork.
“Sometimes, parents will choose CAO courses for their son or daughter, and some parents will complete the CAO application form.
“Anxious parents will contact the university, if they feel that their son/daughter is struggling in any way. “
However, Deady says, it’s college policy to engage with students and not with parents, unless the student is under the age of 18.
“Some parents will call students to make sure they’re up in time for their lectures — parents are familiar with academic timetables.
“Parents are very involved and many are in regular contact with students, because they can. It’s easy with technology — more than in previous generations.
First-year students, for the most part, come to college from a heavily structured environment, she says.
“It’s therefore difficult for them to adjust to a less structured environment, where every hour of every day is not scheduled for them. They find it very hard to make decisions themselves, because decisions have always been made for them.”
Advises Deady: “I’d say to parents to give their students the freedom to make decisions.
“UCC is a safe place to study and it supports students. They are in safe hands,” she says, warning that “there’s an issue of resilience, which comes back to fix-it parents.
“If parents keep sorting and fixing, students cannot bounce back from disappointments and, as a result, they give up quickly.”
This habit of parental ‘intervention’ usually starts well before college and can be difficult to break, Ms Deady says.
“If a student is doing badly in school, for example, or doesn’t make the team, the parent is sometimes in there trying to sort it out. This tendency begins in school and continues into university.
“We’re seeing the results of over-parenting — parents rush in to try to fix a problem. We have students in their 20s whose parents are still very involved in their lives.
“If young people develop coping skills early in life, they’ll develop resilience and the ability to bounce back, and to persevere when they have emotional and academic setbacks. It’s about developing coping skills at a young age.”
While many students cope well with the transition to first year in college, more are reporting stress, anxiety and panic attacks, when something goes wrong, says Bohan.
Some find it difficult to cope with new surroundings, or with their chosen programme not being quite what they expected.
“They don’t seem to be able to cope with disappointment and lack of structure.
“In college, there’s no-one to tell them what to do and they don’t seem to be able to put all the pieces together and make something of it. If a thing doesn’t work out the way they expected, they cannot cope, they falter. They don’t seem to be able to cope with the glitches.”
She warns against parents being overly-influential on course choices. “The influence of parents in programme choice at third-level is very high. Some students can come in and decide they don’t like the course because they didn’t think about it.
“The biggest reason for dropout in first-year is wrong subject choice, because they’ve given it so little thought and have possibly been over-influenced by parents.”
Perseverance can be an issue for the internet generation, says Professor Pat Fitzpatrick, emeritus professor of mathematics at UCC.
“When you’re studying something, you have to persevere.
“It’s hard work; you need to be patient and accept that you will make mistakes, but, nowadays, it seems that kids get discouraged if there isn’t a quick win or they don’t immediately understand what they are doing. They are inclined to give up, particularly in maths.
“IQ is very important, of course, but success is about IQ and hard work, and students don’t understand that they have to keep going and must persevere if it doesn’t come right the first and second time.
“I think the internet generation seems to feel that they have to grasp things immediately, or they’ll not get it at all, and they give up.”
Bohan agrees: “Everything has to be immediate and they want the rewards now. They don’t realise that success is the result of hard work — and consistently hard work.”
University of Limerick has a strong structure of support for students — from the first seven-weeks programme for freshers, to learner centres for a range of subjects, as well as a special student advisory system.
It’s not about hand-holding, says Dr Fiona Farr, dean of teaching and learning at UL. It’s about helping first-years navigate an unfamiliar environment.
“Supports are effective when they’re implemented in the right way and they achieve a balance between supporting the student and encouraging independence and responsibility.
“They excel when they have the right supports and engage with them in the right way,” she says.
The problem for young adults, says O’Malley, is when they arrive in college “they’re not used to not having someone older telling them what to do.
“They’ve never learned to do things for themselves. They’ve never had to.”
Some, though not all, first-year students are overwhelmed by the amount of freedom in third-level life, says Ian Mooney, student union welfare officer at Trinity College.
“They don’t go to lectures, because there is no one to tell them to,” he says.
For the one-third or so who move away from home to attend college, according to figures from the Irish League of Credit Union Survey in 2013, the complexities of attending classes, managing their finances and cooking for themselves can be a struggle.
Yet, says Bohan, when students do grasp the nettle and tackle challenges, they’re well able to speak up, “so you wonder why mammy was getting involved at all.”
“Coming for help to us can actually be the turning point in their lives, where they find their freedom.
“If they come to the realisation that ‘something is wrong’, this means that they are thinking independently — and we can work with students on nearly every issue and help them find their feet.”
Other factors may play a part in the apparent lack of resilience in our young people, says Helena Ahern, psychologist and head of counselling and personal development services at DCU.
“I think a number of people within the university sector, and in education generally, would say there‘s a lack of resilience in some students,” she says.
“They seem to get extraordinarily upset about poor academic performance, because they’re not used to dealing with failure.”
It’s partly because so much is done for this generation, but there are other factors.
More than ever before, she says, students are under pressure to perform academically, to look well in the latest designer gear, and to be a certain weight and height.
“There is this mainstream image of what success is and some students feel they really have to live up to that.
“This causes great anxiety and a feeling of failure if they don’t”.
A high level of comparisons are made within the peer group, which can result in bullying, she says.
“All of this can feed into a lack of resilience, because it can damage their sense of identity.”