Nova Scotia

Parental anxiety can be 'paralyzing' for students, says counsellor

Move over helicopter parents — Canada's "curling parents" are sweeping aside obstacles for their adult children, but leaving them unable to handle the rocks life throws at them.

Veteran student counsellor says it's time to let young people learn how to make their own mistakes

Joanne Mills has seen parents become more involved in their adult children's lives in recent years. (CBC)

Move over helicopter parents — Canada's "curling parents" are sweeping aside obstacles for their adult children, but leaving them unable to handle the rocks life throws at them.

That's according to Joanne Mills, director of counselling services at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She's counselled students for 20 years, including at Mount Saint Vincent University and College of the North Atlantic in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"I like the Canadian term 'curling parents' because the parents sweep the way for their son or daughter," she says.

The over-involvement ... by the parent has crippled the young person from having the skills to deal with adversity.- Joanne Mills

"Parents have protected their son or daughter from adversity and they have intervened when their son or daughter has met with any difficulties. They've called the teachers, they've sent the emails — and I've been guilty of this myself as a parent."

Most of the students she sees come for help with anxiety issues. That could be excessive worry, fear, phobias and stress. The concerns are often irrational — which is normal.

Many fear speaking up in class or with friends and want ways to improve that. Others worry about their academic and financial future. "That can be quite paralyzing for students," she says.

Mills says stigma around psychological services has declined in the last decade. She thinks that's largely due to young people having a clearer understanding about the severity of mental health issues and knowing that getting help can improve their lives.

Once the most common concerns were break-ups, exam stress and homesickness, but now they see people handling bi-polar disorder, homelessness and abuse.

'Crippled' by too much help

But then there's the problem of too much "help."

"Parents will come in with their son or daughter to counselling. They will call me directly," Mills says.

Those "curling parents" ask her to follow up with their children and then call back with an update. But she can't do that.

"However it's also difficult for us as counsellors as we have to maintain confidentiality and we treat our students as adults. We have to explain that to parents when they call out of concern," says Mills

"I understand their nervousness. It's hard for children to be away from home and Dalhousie has the largest percentage of out-of-province students of any university in Canada," Mills says. 

While the parents act with good intentions, sweeping away most of your child's problem means they don't learn to do it for themselves.

"The over-involvement and the intervention by the parent has crippled the young person from having the skills to deal with adversity," Mill says. When the young people leave home for university and run into life's woes "they panic because they don't know what to do."

Learning to recover from mistakes

"I think our youth are needing to learn those skills to deal with life problems, and I think they will," Mills adds.

Part of that is knowing that we all make mistakes. Mills counselled one student who realized he had "screwed up" and was failing. He accepted that and prepared for his recovery.

"But the mother was quite upset and quite anxious about this reality," she says. "I think that anxiety that the parent feels gets passed onto the son or daughter."

She thinks it's a "pendulum swing" as each generation of parents alters what their parents did. "It's part of that pressure to succeed. I think in the last ten to 20 years there has been increased pressure on youth," she says.

That leaves no room for mistakes, putting needless pressure on parents and kids. Mills urges parents to focus less on preventing their kids from making mistakes, and more on helping them get past mistakes.

"Always let your son or daughter know you support them, that you love them, and that you're there for them, no matter what. Whether they fail or make mistakes or stumble, encourage them to work through their life issues — to find their own strength to do that," she says.

"I think that makes mistakes less scary for them."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?