Department of Communication Studies, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS 66045.
The Association Between Overparenting, Parent-Child Communication, and Entitlement and Adaptive Traits in Adult Children
Article first published online: 13 MAR 2012
© 2012 by the National Council on Family Relations
Volume 61, Issue 2, pages 237–252, April 2012
How to Cite
Segrin, C., Woszidlo, A., Givertz, M., Bauer, A. and Taylor Murphy, M. (2012), The Association Between Overparenting, Parent-Child Communication, and Entitlement and Adaptive Traits in Adult Children. Family Relations, 61: 237–252. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2011.00689.x
Communication Arts & Sciences, California State University, Chico, Tehama Hall Room 201, Chico, CA 95929-0502.
Department of Communication, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721.
Department of Communication Studies, Bloomsburg University, 400 E. 2nd St., Bloomsburg, PA 17815.
- Issue published online: 13 MAR 2012
- Article first published online: 13 MAR 2012
- family interaction;
- family interactions and communications;
- interpersonal and family communication;
- parent-child relations in later life;
- Top of page
- Conceptualization and Theoretical Perspectives
- The Present Study
What is colloquially referred to as “helicopter parenting” is a form of overparenting in which parents apply overly involved and developmentally inappropriate tactics to their children who are otherwise able to assume adult responsibilities and autonomy. Overparenting is hypothesized to be associated with dysfunctional family processes and negative child outcomes. Predictions were tested on 538 parent-young adult child dyads from locations throughout most of the United States. Parents completed a newly developed measure of overparenting as well as family enmenshment, parenting styles, and parent-child communication scales. Young adult children completed measures of parent-child communication, family satisfaction, entitlement, and several adaptive traits. Results showed that overparenting is associated with lower quality parent-child communication and has an indirect effect on lower family satisfaction. Overparenting was also a significant predictor of young adult child entitlement, although it was not related to any of the adaptive traits measured in young adult children.
“Helicopter parenting” is a colloquial term used to describe overly involved parents who hover over their children, ready to swoop down and resolve any problems that the child might encounter (Cline & Fay, 1990). Even though this parenting practice could theoretically occur at any stage of childhood, it is most often used in reference to parents of late adolescent or young adult children. In recent years, the popular press has featured numerous accounts and anecdotes of helicopter parents intervening on behalf of their children to resolve grade disputes with college professors and even salary negotiations with employers after the adult child graduates from college (e.g., Gibbs, 2009). These hyperinvolved and risk-averse parents try to shield their children from any perceived obstacle and appear to take a high level of personal responsibility for their children's success and happiness—outcomes that they perhaps also experience vicariously.
What is colloquially referred to as “helicopter parenting” is a version of overparenting in which parents demonstrate excessive involvement in their children's lives and apply developmentally inappropriate parenting tactics by failing to allow for levels of autonomy suitable to their child's age. Despite extensive anecdotal evidence of the existence and speculation about the causes and consequences of this parenting practice, there is virtually no scientific research on this type of overparenting of young adult children. Closely related work on parental control and intrusive parenting, however, provides ample cause for concern about the potentially deleterious consequences of this otherwise well-intended parenting practice. Therefore, the primary aim of this investigation was to examine the association between overparenting, parent-child communication quality, and both negative and positive child traits that are presumably influenced by this parenting practice.
What are the consequences of ostensibly well-intended parenting practices taken too far or not adjusted to be appropriate to the child's developmental stage? Theory and research both suggest that intrusive, overinvolved, and overly controlling parenting may lead to negative child outcomes. Presumably, overinvolved parents create an expectation of privilege in their children. Children come to expect that problems will be solved for them and that they should not have to tolerate going without what they want. Overparenting is also associated with problems with emotional regulation in children. In very young children, overparenting has been linked to anxious, withdrawn, depressive, and insecure tendencies (Bayer, Sanson, & Hemphill, 2006; Gar & Hudson, 2008). In young adults, parental control is similarly linked to problems with emotional regulation and management, especially in the areas of depression and frustration (Fischer, Forthun, Pidcock, & Dowd, 2007). The parenting style characterized as “helicopter parenting” is correlated with dependent personality traits and neuroticism in young adults (Montgomery, 2010). Overinvolved parenting has also been shown to be associated with lower self-efficacy in young adult children (Givertz & Segrin, 2012). One of the apparent consequences of parents attempting to solve all of their children's problems and to assume responsibility for their child's well-being well into adulthood is that the child never develops a strong belief in his or her own ability to solve problems and achieve goals. This low self-efficacy is understandable in that the child would have little experiential basis for such beliefs.
Conceptualization and Theoretical Perspectives
- Top of page
- Conceptualization and Theoretical Perspectives
- The Present Study
Our theory of overparenting is informed by related research and theory on parenting styles, family systems theory, and dynamic parenting practices. We conceptualize overparenting as a form of developmentally inappropriate parenting that is driven by parents' overzealous desires to ensure the success and happiness of their children, typically in a way that is construed largely in the parents' terms, and to remove any perceived obstacles to those positive outcomes. Overparenting is often a by-product of enmeshed family systems in which the parents' goals and desires are projected onto, and confused with, the child's. Behaviorally, these are expected to be manifested in high levels of advice and other directive behaviors, protection of the child from negative outcomes, instrumental support, and a preoccupation with the child's happiness. Although it is likely enacted with the best of intentions, overparenting is a paradoxical behavior in that it has a higher potential to lead to negative child outcomes than to positive ones. Unlike some other maladaptive parenting practices such as abuse, overparenting is defined in a matter of degree. That is to say that the behaviors that constitute overparenting may indeed be adaptive at modest levels. The parenting practice is assumed to be harmful to child development and traits when enacted in excess, hence the term “overparenting.”
Baumrind's (1971, 1978) typology of parenting styles identified three distinct types of parents: authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative. The associated research findings consistently show that authoritative parenting leads to the most positive outcomes for children and adolescents (Baumrind, 1991). Authoritative parenting has been associated with a variety of adaptive child outcomes (Stafford & Bayer, 1993) including the development of an internal locus of control, a more positive self-concept (McClun & Merrell, 1998), and the ability to self-regulate and demonstrate social responsibility (Baumrind, 1991). The core of authoritative parenting is the combination of clear parental control coupled with rational application of discipline and reasoning shared with the child. In contrast, the authoritarian parent makes decisions and applies parenting practices in a rigid fashion, without adjustment to the specific needs of the child, the situation, or both. This parenting style, which is generally associated with less positive child outcomes, has some of the same elements of overparenting. Overparenting and authoritarian parenting both reflect deficits in knowing when to back off and allow for some self-direction on the part of the child, even if that direction is at odds with the parent's own opinion or perspective. Peterson and Hann (1999) noted that excessive parental control most often serves the needs of the parent rather than the child and that such parenting is ordinarily associated with negative child outcomes. Finally, the permissive parenting style involves high levels of responsiveness to child needs but low levels of demand. Adolescents from such homes have been found to be relatively low in achievement orientation and self-regulation (Baumrind, 1991). Parental permissiveness has some features in common with overparenting, namely, high levels of responsiveness to the child's needs—at least as perceived by the parent. The low directiveness that is inherent in permissiveness, however, is antithetical to overparenting.
Related research and theory from a family systems perspective also support the notion that the healthiest family environments have moderate, or balanced, levels of family cohesion that are adjusted to developmental demands experienced by the family (Barnes & Olson, 1985; Olson, 2000). In other words functional families are cohesive without being enmeshed. Balanced families tend to exhibit more positive communication (Barnes & Olson, 1985), and they experience higher levels of family satisfaction (Kouneski, 2001). From this perspective, overparenting can be seen as an amalgamation of excessive cohesion to the point of enmeshment and a failure to adapt to the changing and diminishing needs of the aging child. The projection of parents' needs and desires onto their children is a form of enmeshment in which affective connections may be too strong and boundaries too vague for the family's own good. Enmeshment figures prominently in the theorizing on intrusive parenting (Barber & Harmon, 2002) and in the emerging literature on overparenting (e.g., Munich & Munich, 2009). Enmeshment indicates family problems with boundary regulation. We do not propose that enmeshment causes overparenting, but rather that it creates a context in which overparenting is more probable and in which child outcomes are jeopardized. Research on individuation indicates that the family system must adjust the balance between separateness and connectedness as children grow older (Bartle, Anderson, & Sabatelli, 1989). Family systems that fail to make this adjustment put the personal adjustment of the child at risk. The family system's degree of differentiation is a reflection of their patterns of distance regulation that allow for age-appropriate individuation that in turn is associated with children's psychosocial adjustment (Gavazzi & Sabatelli, 1990).
The idea of adjusting parenting practices to developmentally appropriate levels for the maturing child is an old concept that can be traced back to Winnicott's (1953) conceptualization of “good enough mothering.” Good enough mothering refers to the practice of starting off with provision of complete attention and care to an infant child. As the child grows older, however, and begins to develop competencies of his or her own, the good enough parent eventually begins to taper off this level of care, allowing the child to experience some difficulties and even failures. In fact, one could argue that it is the parental permission of these struggles and failures that the child attempts to either solve or cope with that is the true antecedent to developing competencies in the maturing child. Naturally, the autonomy that the child is allowed is closely connected to the child's developmental stage in good enough parenting.
Our conceptualization of overparenting has a number of similarities to and differences from related concepts in the parenting literature. For example, the literature on intrusive parenting (e.g., Barber & Harmon, 2002) illustrates how the application of psychological control by the parent can diminish the child's individuation, competence, and efficacy (Barber, Olsen, & Shagel, 1994). Overparenting is assumed to have many of these same effects. It is not, however, accomplished by manipulation of the child's emotions and constraint of the child's expressions, as in the case of psychological control. We propose that overparenting is typically enacted with more benevolent intentions than intrusive parenting. Similarly, the parental control that is a key ingredient in the authoritarian parenting style (e.g., Baumrind, 1971) has some of the same elements of directiveness that can be found in overparenting. The parental control of the authoritarian parent is not, however, responsive to the child's needs, whereas overparenting is overly fixated on the child's needs, at least as they are perceived by the parent. This particular aspect of overparenting is comparable to that of permissive parenting. Finally, overparenting shares similar features with parental emotional overinvolvement (e.g., Gar & Hudson, 2008) such as overprotectiveness and an extreme willingness to do anything for the child. Overparenting, however, or “helicopter parenting” as is it sometimes referenced in the professional literature and media, has unique qualities that are not captured in any of these related constructs. These include, for example, risk aversion, a preoccupation with the child's happiness, and the drive to solve problems for the child, perhaps before they even develop.
The Present Study
- Top of page
- Conceptualization and Theoretical Perspectives
- The Present Study
In the present investigation, we sought to test three sets of predictions. The first concerns the connection between overparenting, parent-child communication, and child satisfaction with the family. Because overparenting is assumed to be driven largely by parental tendencies and desires, it is predicted that parents who engage in this practice will have less open communication with their children and will experience more problems in their parent-child communication. This is because overparenting is not necessarily a negotiated family process involving parent and child. Rather, overparenting is assumed to be most often enacted largely at the will of the parent. This suggests less openness in parent-child communication and more potential problems, especially for children who do not welcome this intrusive parenting. This leads to an important research question: What is the association between overparenting and child satisfaction with the family? On one hand, children might enjoy the benefits of extreme social support and problem solving from their parents that are part of overparenting. On the other hand, children might resent the altercasting into a nonautonomous role that is enacted as their parents engage in overparenting.
The second prediction is that overparenting is associated with a greater sense of entitlement in the young adult child. Through family experience, the “overparented” child comes to understand that others can, and perhaps should, solve his or her problems and furnish extraordinary tangible assistance and support. This learning history, rooted in family of origin interaction, may then be generalized to interactions in other settings, creating a global sense of entitlement.
The final prediction of this study is that overparenting will have deleterious effects on the development of socially adaptive traits in young adult children. This is informed by past research linking overparenting to lower self-efficacy and problems with effective emotion regulation (Fischer et al., 2007; Givertz & Segrin, 2012). The child entitlement that appears to be a consequence of overparenting is assumed to interfere with emotion regulation by making the child prone to anger and frustration as well as more negative social interactions, as most people react negatively to those with a strong sense of entitlement. Accordingly, we selected the following socially adaptive traits for analysis: self-efficacy (social and general), emotional intelligence, and positive relations with others.
- Top of page
- Conceptualization and Theoretical Perspectives
- The Present Study
Participants in this investigation were 538 parent-young adult child dyads. The parents had a mean age of 50.81 years (SD = 5.93) and 78% were female and 22% male. Ninety-seven percent were the biological parent of the young adult child who participated along with them in the study, with the remaining 3% evenly split between stepparents, adoptive parents, and grandparents who had legal guardianship when the young adult child was a minor. The parent sample was 0.2% American Indian/Alaskan Native, 3.3% Asian/Pacific Islander, 4.3% Black/African American, 6.1% Hispanic/Latino, 83.8% White, and 2.2% Other/Unknown. In terms of family size, 9% of the parents had one child, 43% had two children, 32% had three children, 10% had four children, and 6% had five or more children. To assess current levels of contact with their child, parents were asked “On average, how frequently do you communicate with the child who is participating with you in this study (via phone, text messaging, face-to-face, and so on)?” Responses were several times a day (19%), approximately once a day (25%), several times a week (39%), approximately once a week (12%), and several times a month (3%), and the remaining 1% indicated once a month or less. These parents resided in 38 of the 50 United States and just under 2% of the parents resided in other countries (i.e., China, Denmark, France, Mexico, Singapore, Syria, and Togo).
The young adult children who participated in this investigation were, on average, 20.28 years of age (SD = 2.10), with 64% women and 36% men. The race or ethnicity of the young adult child sample was 0.9% American Indian/Alaskan Native, 4.3% Asian/Pacific Islander, 4.5% Black/African American, 6.3% Hispanic/Latino, 82.0% White, and 2.0% other/unknown. The young adult children described their predominant family structure when growing up as two parents (biological) in 80% of the cases, two parents (step-family) 6%, two parents (adoptive) 1%, two parents (same sex) 1%, one parent 9%, and the remaining 3% as “other.” When asked how long they lived in the same household as the parent who was participating with them in the study, the adult children reported an average of 18.42 years (SD = 2.01). In terms of birth order, 34% of the children described themselves as the oldest, 17% middle, 39% youngest, and 10% as only.
Parent-child dyads were recruited through students attending a university located in the West, Southwest, Midwest, or Northeastern United States. Students were offered extra credit toward their course grade in exchange for completing an on-line survey and for referring a parent to also complete an on-line survey. Interested students were given a link to a secure Website where they could complete the survey with measures described in the following section. At the end of the student survey, participants were asked for a name and e-mail address of a parent who would be willing to complete a survey, also with measures described in the following section. The parent referred by the student was then sent a link to a different survey. The parent-child dyads were linked with a code number so that parents did not have to provide their or their child's name as part of their survey response. The parental response rate was 85% on the basis of those student responses who furnished a working e-mail address for a parent (15 students provided a nonworking e-mail address for their parent). The software used to collect student and parent survey responses recorded the IP address from which the survey responses originated as well as the start and finish time of the survey responses. The data from three dyads were deleted because both the student and parent survey responses originated from the same IP address, 19 dyads were dropped because at least one member completed the survey in less than 10 minutes, and data from 8 dyads were dropped because the student furnished the same e-mail address for his or her parent as for himself or herself. After these deletions, there were 538 parent-child dyads retained for analysis.
The parents who participated in this survey completed the following measures.
Parenting style. For the purpose of assessing the construct validity of the overparenting measure, parents completed the Parental Authority Questionnaire (PAQ; Buri, 1991). The questionnaire was developed to measure Baumrind's (1971) parental authority prototypes. It consists of 30 items and yields permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative scores. For the purposes of this study, the PAQ was adapted to create a parent version of the questionnaire with sample items such as “As my child was growing up, I allowed her/him to decide most things for her/himself without a lot of direction from me” and “I feel that wise parents should teach their children early just who is the boss in the family.” Response options were on a 5-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree). The internal reliability was α = .79, .82, and .78 for the permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative subscales, respectively.
Family environment. Also for the purpose of assessing the construct validity of the overparenting measure, parents completed the seven-item enmeshed subscale and the seven-item disengagement subscale of the Family Adaptability and Cohesion Evaluation Scales, Version IV (FACES IV; Olson, Gorall, & Tiesel, 2006). The enmeshment scale contains items that assess extreme emotional bonding and exaggerated external boundaries in the family system (e.g., “We spend too much time together,”“We resent family members doing things outside of the family”). The disengagement scale contains items that measure avoidance and independent problem solving in the family (e.g., “Family members seem to avoid contact with each other when at home,”“Family members are on their own when there is a problem to be solved”). For both scales, response options were on a 5-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree). Internal reliabilities were α = .79 for the enmeshment subscale and α = .76 for the disengagement subscale.
Overparenting. Because there is no measure in the literature specifically developed to assess overparenting, items were developed for this study to assess such phenomena as offering advice, problem solving for the child, providing tangible assistance to the child, protecting the child from risk, monitoring and attention to the child, removing obstacles for the child, and management of the child's emotions and moods, based on descriptions of overparenting that appear in the clinical literature and professional literatures (e.g., Munich & Munich, 2009; Taylor, 2006). Response options were on a 5-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree). The items were subjected to an exploratory factor analysis with principal axis factoring extraction and promax rotation, which is an oblique rotation method based on the assumption that the various factors of overparenting would be correlated. Inspection of the scree plot initially indicated a five-factor solution. The fifth factor, however, had too few items to have acceptable reliability, so a four-factor solution was retained for subsequent analysis. These factors were labeled Anticipatory Problem Solving, Advice/Affect Management, Child Self-Direction, and Tangible Assistance. For all subsequent analyses, scores on the Child Self-Direction factor were reversed such that high scores equal less child self-direction. Scale items, factor loadings, reliabilities, variance explained, and interfactor correlations are presented in Table 1. Correlations between the four overparenting factors and family environment and parenting styles appear in Table 2.
|Scale Item||Anticipatory Problem Solving||Advice/Affect Management||Child Self-Direction||Tangible Assistance|
|I try to help my child steer clear of any troubles that s/he might encounter in the world.||.57||.42||.16||.31|
|If I can see that my child is about to have some difficulty, I will intervene to take care of the situation before things get difficult for him/her.||.69||.28||.23||.25|
|I try to solve problems for my child before s/he even experiences them.||.66||.12||.30||.18|
|I get actively involved in helping my child solve the problems that s/he experiences.||.60||.42||.28||.34|
|I try to anticipate things that will prevent my child from reaching his/her goals and act to eliminate them before they become a problem.||.72||.28||.26||.23|
|I take a lot of responsibility for seeing to it that my child is happy.||.63||.40||.19||.32|
|I tell my child how to plan out certain activities.||.56||.26||.25||.14|
|I invest a lot of energy helping my child troubleshoot and solve problems.||.60||.38||.18||.26|
|Whenever possible I try to keep my child away from environments that might lead him/her into trouble.||.54||.46||.14||.35|
|I try to stay one step ahead of what my child is doing so that I can help him/her minimize any obstacles that could be encountered.||.69||.23||.23||.15|
|I do anything that I can to keep my child out of harm's way.||.56||.44||.15||.33|
|If my child is having problems with another person, I am not afraid to contact that person directly on my child's behalf.||.54||.17||.09||.19|
|I give my child advice on how to do things.||.44||.56||.19||.25|
|If I see that my child is feeling badly I try to cheer him/her up.||.35||.67||− .03||.30|
|I make suggestions to my child to help him/her get things accomplished.||.41||.51||.08||.28|
|I talk to my child about most of the things that s/he is involved in these days.||.18||.53||−.03||.31|
|When my child gets anxious I will say things to calm him/her down.||.26||.60||−.03||.36|
|I say or do things to cheer my child up.||.31||.71||−.05||.28|
|I share ideas with my child about how to handle the various situations that s/he encounters.||.30||.54||−.01||.30|
|When times get tough for my child I talk to him/her about trying to look on the bright side of things.||.22||.56||−.05||.31|
|I give my child the space and freedom to do things on his/her own. (R)||.14||−.16||.48||−.06|
|I let my child work out the problems that s/he encounters on his/her own. (R)||.14||.07||.58||.01|
|I let my child figure out how to do things on his/her own. (R)||.21||.08||.62||.07|
|Even though I have opinions about how my child should do certain things, I tend to keep them to myself. (R)||.15||.30||.42||.17|
|Whenever my child gets upset s/he can usually get things under control without too much input from me. (R)||.18||.01||.44||.05|
|I let my child solve most problems on his/her own. (R)||.23||.03||.58||.06|
|These days I try not to pry too much into my child's business. (R)||.20||.09||.59||.06|
|Even though I can see potential problems developing before my child sees them, I will let my child resolve them on his/her own for the learning experience. (R)||.11||.16||.50||.14|
|I believe that my child will benefit most in the long run by working through problems on his/her own. (R)||.17||−.02||.49||.09|
|I am willing to let my child take some chances in life. (R)||.21||−.06||.49||.03|
|I try not to intrude into my child's private affairs. (R)||.18||.00||.44||.01|
|I let my child take personal responsibility for his/her own happiness in life. (R)||.20||−.09||.53||−.09|
|When my child has financial needs, I always try to help him/her out.||.41||.42||.06||.55|
|I am happy to do day-to-day chores for my child such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry when possible.||.36||.36||.06||.47|
|I help my child out with his/her transportation needs (e.g., providing a car, buying a plane ticket, giving rides).||.24||.39||−.03||.60|
|I see to it that my child's financial needs are taken care of.||.34||.40||.05||.77|
|I don't want my child to have to worry about finances and how his/her bills will be paid.||.35||.26||.02||.54|
|At this point in time, I still try to provide basic necessities such as food and clothing to my child.||.25||.32||.06||.58|
|At this point in time, I feel that my child should assume responsibility for paying his/her own bills. (R)||−.04||.15||.14||.55|
|% variance explained||20.30||8.78||5.11||4.16|
|Anticipatory Problem Solving correlation||—|
|Advice/Affect Management correlation||.46||—|
|Child Self-Direction correlation||.30||.04||—|
|Tangible Assistance correlation||.37||.51||.07||—|
|Overparenting Factors||Permissive Parenting||Authoritarian Parenting||Authoritative Parenting||Disengagement||Enmeshment|
|Anticipatory Problem Solving||.22***||.29***||.07||.07||.35***|
The following measure was completed by both parents and their young adult children.
Open parent-child communication. Parent-child communication was assessed using the Parent-Adolescent Communication Scale (Barnes & Olson, 1982). The scale is composed of 20 items that measure the degree of openness and lack of problems in family communication. Items in the scale were developed with multiple referents such as “my child,”“my parent,” making it applicable to both parent and child perspectives. For example, an item on the child version that reads “It is very easy for me to express all of my true feelings to my parent,” appears as “It is very easy for me to express all of my true feelings to my child” on the parent version. Response options were on a 5-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree). Parents were instructed to respond to each item specifically in regard to their child who was participating with them in this investigation, and young adult children were instructed to respond to each item specifically in regard to the parent who was participating with them in this investigation. Internal reliabilities were α = .89 for parent reports and α = .91 for young adult reports.
The young adult children who participated in this survey completed the following measures.
Family satisfaction. Family satisfaction was assessed using the Family Satisfaction Scale (Olson & Wilson, 1989). The scale has 10 items and asks participants to rate the degree to which they are satisfied with the statements using a 5-point Likert scale (1 = very dissatisfied, 5 = extremely satisfied). Sample items include, “The quality of communication between family members,”“Your family's ability to resolve conflicts” and “The way problems are discussed.” The internal reliability of this scale was α = .93.
Entitlement. Because entitlement was a central focus of this investigation, it was assessed with three separate scales. The first was the Entitlement Rage subscale of the Pathological Narcissism Inventory (Pincus et al., 2009). This eight-item scale contains statements that reflect the experience of anger when the respondent does not get the level of attention or recognition that she or he seeks. Responses are on a 5-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree). Sample items include “I get annoyed by people who are not interested in what I say or do” and “I get mad when people don't notice all that I do for them.” This scale had a reliability of α = .84. The second measure of entitlement was the Entitlement subscale of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (Raskin & Terry, 1988). This five-item scale contains statements that measure narcissistic beliefs and expectations. Sample items include “I insist upon getting the respect that is due to me” and “I will never be satisfied until I get all that I deserve.” Participants responded to these items on a 5-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree). The reliability of this scale was α = .66. The third measure of entitlement was the Psychological Entitlement Scale (Campbell, Bonacci, Shelton, Exline, & Bushman, 2004). The scale has nine items, including “I demand the best because I'm worth it,” and “People like me deserve an extra break now and then.” Participants were asked to rate the degree to which they agreed with the statements using a 7-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree). This scale had a reliability of α = .78.
Self-efficacy. Young adult children completed the Self-Efficacy Scale (Sherer et al., 1982), which has two subscales that measure general and social self-efficacy. The General Self-Efficacy subscale has 16 items that assess beliefs in one's ability to successfully accomplish tasks and achieve goals (e.g., “When I make plans, I am certain I can make them work”). The Social Self-Efficacy subscale contains six items that assess the ability to achieve goals in the context of social relationships (e.g., “I have acquired my friends through my personal abilities at making friends”). Several items from the Social Self-Efficacy subscale were dropped in order to create a more reliable scale. Both the General and Social Self-Efficacy scales were answered on a 5-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree). The internal reliability was α = .84 for the General Self-Efficacy subscale and α = .71 for the Social Self-Efficacy subscale.
Emotional intelligence. The Emotional Intelligence Scale (Schutte et al., 1998) is a 33-item scale that assesses the effectiveness with which people express, process, and manage their emotions. Sample items include “I have control over my emotions” and “I know what other people are feeling just by looking at them.” Response options for these items were on a 5-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree). The internal reliability of this scale was α = .87.
Positive relationships with others. Young adult children completed the 14-tem Positive Relations With Others scale (Ryff, 1989; Ryff & Keyes, 1995) to assess their tendency to have positively toned relationships and interactions with other people. This 14-item instrument is composed of seven statements that reflect positive interactions with other people (e.g., “I feel I get a lot out of my friendships”) and seven that indicate negatively toned interactions with others (e.g., “I don't have many people who want to listen when I need to talk”). These latter seven items are reverse scored and added to the positively worded items for a single scale in which higher scores reflect more positive relations with others. Response options for these items were on a 5-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree). The internal reliability of this scale was α = .78.
Prior to testing predictions outlined in the Introduction, measurement analyses were conducted using structural equation modeling to create a latent variable for the overparenting measure. That latent variable was then used in subsequent structural equation modeling analyses to test predictions between overparenting and (a) parent-adolescent communication, (b) adult child entitlement, and (c) adaptive traits in adult children. In the service of parsimony, adult child entitlement and adaptive traits were each analyzed as latent variables in their respective structural equation modeling analyses.
- Top of page
- Conceptualization and Theoretical Perspectives
- The Present Study
The first prediction was that overparenting would be associated with lower quality family communication. A related research question asked whether overparenting and the hypothesized lower quality family communication associated with it would be predictive of young adult child family satisfaction. Because there were multiple indicators of overparenting, an initial measurement model was tested in which the four factors from the newly created overparenting measure (i.e., anticipatory problem solving, advice/affect management, child self-direction, and tangible assistance) were tested for their adequacy in representing a single latent variable. Initial results suggested a less than adequate fit, but modification indices suggested that specification of a correlation between the advice/affect management and tangible assistance error terms would improve model fit. With these specifications, the resultant model provided an adequate fit to the sample data, χ2(2) = 5.22, p = .07, χ2/df = 2.61, comparative fit index (CFI) = .98, root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA) = .06. Therefore, this model of overparenting that appears in the top portion of Figure 1 was employed in subsequent structural models used to test the study's predictions.
The structural model used to test the prediction and research question specified an association between the overparenting latent variable and both parent and child reports of parent-child communication. Both of these parent-child communication variables were then specified as predictors of young adult child family communication satisfaction. The initial results suggested a less than adequate fit, but modification indices showed that specification of a correlation between the error terms of the parent and young adult child reports of parent-child communication would improve model fit. We also trimmed a nonsignificant path from the parent report of parent-child communication to child family satisfaction. The resultant model appears in Figure 1 and had at least a moderate fit to the sample data, χ2(12) = 62.06, p < .001, χ2/df = 5.17, CFI = .88, RMSEA = .08, although there is clearly substantial room for improvement in the specification of this model. Regression coefficients confirmed the prediction that overparenting was associated with less open and problem-free parent-child communication as reported by both parents (β = −.20, p < .001) and young adult children (β = −.11, p < .01). Although parent reports of parent-child communication were not significantly associated with child reports of family satisfaction, there was a strong and positive association between young adult child reports of parent-child communication and young adult child family satisfaction (β = .60, p < .001). As a post hoc exploration, we specified and tested a direct path from overparenting to young adult child family satisfaction in the context of the same model depicted in Figure 1, and it was nonsignificant (β = −.01, ns) and did not improve the model fit. We used a bootstrapping procedure, however, to estimate the indirect effect of overparenting on family satisfaction through child reports of parent-adolescent communication and found it to be statistically significant (β = −.07, p < .05). These findings indicate that whatever effect overparenting has on young adult children's family satisfaction is through compromised parent-child communication or some other unspecified variable(s), but it is not a direct effect.
It was next predicted that overparenting would be associated with higher entitlement among young adult children. Because there were three measures of entitlement, these were treated as a single latent factor. This just-identified model with one factor and three indicators by definition had a perfect fit, and all of the item loadings were strong and significant. This latent variable is depicted in the lower portion of Figure 2. The same latent overparenting variable as tested in the previous model was specified in this structural model. The model depicted in Figure 2 provided a good fit to the sample data, χ2(13) = 28.37, p < .01, χ2/df = 2.18, CFI = .95, RMSEA = .05. The results of this analysis indicate that overparenting is a significant predictor of young adult children's reports of entitlement such that greater overparenting is associated with a greater sense of entitlement in young adult children (β = .11, p < .05).
The final set of predictions concerned a potentially negative association between overparenting and traits that are adaptive for social relations. Specifically, young adult children completed measures of general self-efficacy, social self-efficacy, emotional intelligence, and positive relations with others. A measurement model was tested to determine whether these four traits loaded on a common latent variable. Initial results yielded a marginal fit, but modification indices suggested that the fit could be improved by specification of a correlation between the error terms of general self-efficacy and positive relations with others. With that specification the model provided an excellent fit to the sample data, χ2(1) = 0.19, p = .89, χ2/df = 0.19, CFI = 1.00, RMSEA = .00. This model is depicted in the lower portion of Figure 3. Next, a structural model was fit in which the overparenting latent variable was specified as a predictor of this adaptive traits latent variable. Results of this analysis appear in Figure 3. The structural model in Figure 3 provided an adequate fit to the sample data, χ2(18) = 40.09, p < .01, χ2/df = 2.23, CFI = .95, RMSEA = .05. There was, however, no statistically significant association between parental reports of overparenting and young adult child reports of adaptive traits (β = .02, ns).
- Top of page
- Conceptualization and Theoretical Perspectives
- The Present Study
This study was designed to examine associations between overparenting, parent-child communication quality, and both positive and negative traits in young adult children. Measurement analyses showed that the four factors of a newly developed measure of overparenting (anticipatory problem solving, advice/affect management, child self-direction, and tangible assistance) loaded on a single latent factor. Results of hypothesis tests showed that parental reports of overparenting are associated with lower quality parent-child communication, as reported by both parents and their young adult children. Overparenting was also positively associated with young adult children's sense of entitlement. There was, however, no evidence to indicate an association between overparenting and any adaptive traits that were assessed in this investigation.
A preliminary aim of this investigation was the development of a psychometrically sound measure of overparenting. The results of an exploratory factor analysis showed that the overparenting measure had four factors, most of which were modestly correlated with the other factors. These factors were labeled Anticipatory Problem Solving, Advice/Affect Management, Child Self-Direction, and Tangible Assistance. Three of these factors were significantly correlated with enmeshment, although the correlation with Anticipatory Problem Solving was weak in magnitude and opposite to the predicted direction. Theories of intrusive and overinvolved parenting routinely point to enmeshment as an associated feature of these parenting practices (Barber & Harmon, 2002; Munich & Munich, 2009). The results of this study provide empirical evidence that some aspects of overparenting are more likely to occur in an enmeshed family system, but others clearly are not. As predicted, certain aspects of overparenting such as less permissiveness of child self-direction and advice/affect management were significantly associated with the authoritarian parenting style. Once again, however, other aspects of overparenting were not consistently associated with any of the permissive, authoritarian, or authoritative parenting. This indicates that overparenting has some elements in common with these parenting styles, but that it is a unique phenomenon at the same time.
Overparenting, Family Communication, and Adult Child Traits
It was predicted that overparenting would be associated with less open and more problematic parent-child communication, and the results of this investigation confirmed that prediction. It is particularly remarkable that the path from overparenting to parent-child communication was significant and negative for both parent and child reports of parent-child communication. This indicates that overparenting occurs in a context in which both parent and child feel that they are not candid with each other, do not always listen carefully to each other, and withdraw from conflict rather than discuss their concerns with each other. Barnes and Olson (1985) found that this problematic parent-child communication is more common in families who are extreme in adaptability and cohesion (e.g., disengaged, enmeshed, chaotic) compared to families that are balanced on the dimensions. These findings are consistent with a conceptualization of overparenting as a largely parent-driven phenomenon in which the child may not be complicit. Even though young adult children may be the “beneficiaries” of overparenting, at least in the mind of the parent, it does not appear to occur in a context of clear and open parent-child communication.
The structural model in Figure 1 shows that young adult children were satisfied with their family environment to the extent that they felt there was good parent-child communication. Parents' reports of parent-child communication, however, were not associated with young adult children's family satisfaction. The discrepancy between the paths from parent versus child reports of parent-child communication to child reports of family satisfaction may be related to their different appraisals of the quality of their communication. In this investigation, as in Barnes and Olson (1985), parents reported better parent-child communication than their young adult children did. If either source is providing a biased account of the quality of parent-child communication, it stands to reason that only the young adult child's account would be a substantial predictor of the young adult child's family satisfaction. It should also be noted that a post hoc analysis yielded no evidence of a direct path from overparenting to young adult child family satisfaction. This implies that overparenting has no direct effect on young adult children's family satisfaction. There was, however, a significant indirect effect indicating that overparenting is associated with lower family satisfaction, as reported by the child, through compromised parent-child communication.
Collectively, the findings in Figure 1 and Table 2 show that overparenting most likely occurs in family systems that are otherwise experiencing problems. These results show that overparenting occurs in systems with lower quality parent-child communication (as reported by both parent and child), which may lead to lower child satisfaction with the family and is associated with enmeshment and, to some extent, other dysfunctional parenting styles such as authoritarian parenting. Overparenting may therefore be a sign of a larger system-wide problem with differentiation that could otherwise compromise the psychosocial development of the family's offspring (Gavazzi & Sabatelli, 1990).
The findings of this study provide evidence that overparenting is associated with a higher sense of entitlement in young adult children. Presumably as parents protect their children from risk, diligently work to maintain a positive affective state in their child, and provide substantial tangible assistance and problem solving for their child, the child may come to feel that she or he is deserving of this treatment from others. This is a vital cognitive process that drives psychological entitlement (Campbell et al., 2004). One might speculate that a long history of overparenting teaches a sense of entitlement to the child. Because the data collected in this investigation are not longitudinal, that claim cannot be made with certainty, but these preliminary findings suggest that such a longitudinal investigation would be a worthy pursuit. Also, it should be noted that the observed association between overparenting and entitlement was weak in this investigation. One of the remarkable features of Figure 2, however, is that the overparenting latent variable is based entirely on parental reports, and the entitlement latent variable is based entirely on young adult child reports.
There was no evidence from this investigation to suggest that overparenting is associated with any of the socially adaptive traits that were measured in young adult children, namely, positive relations with others, general self-efficacy, social self-efficacy, and emotional intelligence. This is somewhat surprising given that overparenting has been associated with socially maladaptive traits such as dependency and neuroticism in past investigations (e.g., Montgomery, 2010) and entitlement in this investigation. Typically, one would expect these traits to covary negatively with emotional intelligence, self-efficacy, and positive relations with others. It is always possible, however, that other family and nonfamily processes play a more dominant role than overparenting in the development of children's more adaptive traits. Another implication of these findings is that overparenting does not appear to hurt the development of adaptive traits, nor does it help. This is a relatively significant point in that presumably many parents engage in overparenting with the assumption and expectation of positive child outcomes. Ordinarily the case for the null hypothesis is regarded as tenuous at best, but in an investigation with 538 dyads, statistical power is sufficiently high so as to provide some confidence in the lack of association between overparenting and the adaptive traits measured in this investigation.
There are several features of this investigation that limit interpretation of its conclusions. First, there is room for improvement in the measure of overparenting. As is evident from Table 1, some of the items in the measure did not load as high on their host factor as would be ideal, and some showed evidence of cross-loading. Even though the resulting four factors had acceptable reliability, the measure could be refined further with additional items. On a related point, it is ordinarily assumed that most if not all of the error terms for the indicators of a latent variable are uncorrelated. To achieve an acceptable fit, however,it was necessary to specify two correlations between error terms, both of which involved the advice/affect management indicator. The model testing associations between overparenting and parent-child communication (Figure 1) did not exhibit a particularly good fit to the sample data. There is room for improvement in specification of this model, perhaps with variables not measured in this investigation. This sample was largely White, middle-class, biological parent-young adult child dyads. Cultural expectations and norms undoubtedly determine what might constitute “overparenting,” and this could vary considerably in different populations. It is customary to note that cross-sectional data cannot support causal claims. This point has at least two implications in the context of this investigation. First, the theory of overparenting guiding this investigation specified reasons for this parenting practice (e.g., enmeshment, projection of parent desires onto the child, risk aversion). Although some of these hypothetical antecedents were not measured in this study, those that were cannot be put in any particular causal order with the actual parenting practices that were measured. Second, even though the models specified an association between overparenting and compromised parent-child communication and entitlement, for example, these data cannot provide definitive support for the causal ordering of these variables. It may be at least possible that young adult children with a strong sense of entitlement solicit overparenting, that their traits color parents' retrospective recall of parenting practices, or that overparenting and child entitlement are both caused by a common third variable such as a heritable temperament. Finally, the scope of this investigation was limited to only a small fraction of potential child outcomes of overparenting. For example, findings suggest that overparenting is associated with a greater sense of entitlement in young adult children. Overparenting, however, could also promote children's anxiety or uncertainty in their own competencies, especially when the parents enact these behaviors with expressed doubt about their child's competence. This possibility highlights the importance of further research into the motivations that underwrite overparenting and their differential effects on child outcomes.
Parent education and training programs are often developed and delivered to increase the likelihood that new parents will ultimately meet the basic needs for care that their young children have. One of the practical implications of the findings from this investigation is that there may be some utility in also focusing educational efforts on situations where parents might unknowingly exceed the developmental needs of their child, especially as the child enters late adolescence and young adulthood. The results of this investigation suggest that if parents could be taught how to identify the developmental needs of their child and allow for increasing autonomy as the child becomes a young adult, the child may be less likely to develop personality traits such as entitlement that could be deleterious to interpersonal relationships later on in life. The results also have practical applications for educational programs geared toward parents of new college and university students (e.g., Taylor, 2006). For example, parents could be made aware that overparenting is associated with lower quality parent-child communication and that despite what may be benevolent intentions it is not associated with traits that are adaptive to the adult child's success.
This investigation showed that overparenting is associated with lower quality parent-child communication and a greater sense of entitlement in young adult children. Overparenting also has a significant and negative indirect association with family satisfaction, through lower quality parent-child communication. This is the first attempt in the literature to develop a specific measure of overparenting and to test its association with child outcomes in a sample of families distributed throughout most of the United States. The findings show that this undoubtedly well-intentioned parenting practice is associated with otherwise maladaptive family processes, it does not contribute to adaptive traits in young adult children, and appears to cultivate a sense of entitlement in young adult children.
- Top of page
- Conceptualization and Theoretical Perspectives
- The Present Study
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