Are Millennials Victims of Helicopter Parenting?

Posted on December 2, 2013 by


Millennial DepressionSlate is running a piece by Brooke Donatone, a therapist at New York University counseling services, who notes that her clients from the millennial generation are struggling toward adulthood. Amy (not her real name), for example, has been depressed since her first year in college, and cannot balance homework, laundry, and a part-time job. Donatone cites her not as an anomaly, but as an example of her generation’s problems and pitfalls.

The causes are complex, and she grants that millennials face far more economic uncertainty than their parents or grandparents, but Donatone seems to lay the primary blame on “helicopter” parents who make it impossible for their children to assume life’s responsibilities. These parents have retarded their child’s ability to resolve conflicts and manage the competing demands endemic to adulthood. This leads to soaring rates of depression.

I am not going to pretend some level of expertise on this issue. I am not part of the millennial generation, though I have been teaching it for many years. I am not a therapist of any sort, but I am a social scientist. None of these things qualify me to say much, but I will make a couple of comments.

Whenever we talk about increasing rates of a particular behavior, we have to be careful. While it is indeed possible that millennials are far more depressed than previous generations, it is also possible they are not, and that other conditions have caused the uptick. For example, perhaps people are more likely to go into therapy than before, which would mean an increased number of patients, but not an increasing rate of depression. Or, perhaps depression is far more likely to be diagnosed or treated now as compared to previous generations due to how we measure it or how many professionals there are to see it. In a way, it is difficult to know how what we are looking at now compares to what happened before given potentially changing conditions and forms of measurement.

Regardless, it is true this generation of young people is dealing with an unusual, but not unknown, context. The economic environment is stressful, but we had serious economic crises in the 1930s and 1970s that are comparable if not worse. It seems inarguable that parenting styles and “childhood” have changed tremendously over the past several decades. This generation has grown up in an environment that is, to a degree, built around its safety. From car seats to flame-resistant pajamas that are tight so as to prevent choking possibilities, their parents have been inundated with nutrition information and “smart” toys designed to make play educational. These children, who are now adults, have also grown up in either smaller families, with fewer children and therefore more attention, or with splintered families with fewer parents, and therefore far less attention (at least in theory). Surely, these things will change how people subjectively view themselves and their lives as they enter adulthood.

I would be remiss if I did not also note, gently, that we live an age without ultimate meaning. How do people mature into adulthood when so many of life’s largest questions are poorly answered by their world-views? Who am I? Why am I here? Is there truth outside of myself? What is a ‘good’ life? What is a ‘bad’ one? When all of these questions linger, or if they are merely asked but rarely answered concretely or meaningfully, how can we expect people to come to grips with the life that swirls around them?

I am not pretending to offer any answers here, but I would love to know what you all think. Are Donatone’s comments accurate? Do you think helicopter parents matter in this way? Or, do we just live in a more therapeutic world that is far more conscious of emotional realities, which makes both potential patients and caregivers more likely to find one another?

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