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Parenting a College Student

Sending a child off to college is a major family event. The young adult who returns after the first year of college is not likely to be the same as the one whom you will leave on the first day of orientation. Students are changed by the learning they grapple with, by interactions with new people, and by the developmental tasks appropriate to their age. The literature suggests the following developmental tasks:

  • separation, differentiation and emancipation from the family
  • formation of a sense of one’s own identity
  • examination and clarification of one’s ethical and moral values
  • achievement of the ability to take care of oneself
  • establishment of a satisfactory sexual identity and formation of intimate relationships
  • choice of career or work role

The role of the college student in the family will be different. While students still maintain their identity as your son or daughter, they will also exert independence and define themselves as independent people. They will expect you to treat them as adults, more as equals than as children. They may be testing new values. They may be full of the knowledge they have gained and think by contrast that you haven’t grown. Trying to take care of themselves may mean that they won’t share as much with you or expect you to help them out as you once did.  You may find their responses to be somewhat unpredictable – one day you are talking to a fully grown up independent person, and the next you feel as if your child has gone back to middle school.  Of course, their need for extra money or the use of your car probably won’t change!

Without the day-to-day interaction with this particular child, your family will also be changed. You will develop new routines that may suggest to the student that they don’t belong at home anymore.  You may convert their room to another use.  Other siblings will assume roles that your student may feel belong to him or her. You, too, will grow. New stories will be told that don’t include this student. Some families move, and some divorce, creating a sense of instability and loss or even a sense of guilt for the child who has been away.

Some parents leave their student at the front door of college and figuratively don’t look back, letting the student to fend for him or herself. Other parents continue to take care of all of the needs of their student, including filling out housing forms and running interference whenever the student faces a problem. We, of course, hope you will be somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Our students need the continued support of their parents. They need to rely on your wisdom as they struggle to make their own decisions. They need your love when problems occur. They need your prodding as they seek balance among the many opportunities available to them. Our students also need to make decisions for themselves and struggle with the complexities of living within a community. They may need to falter and stumble and be frustrated as they find their own way through academic decisions and personal decisions and enhance their sense of social responsibility. Sometimes you will need to let them work through these decisions using college resources instead of family resources.  Your role is to listen and not judge, be attentive and supportive, but not “fix it.” Letting go will enable your student to grow and develop into the mature adult you want him or her to become.

Your Experience as a Parent or Family Member

Parenting is challenging work, and it’s full of change as your children grow.  The biggest adjustment for parents of college students is parenting at a distance.  Here are some of the issues that we know are challenging for parents of college students:

  • Missing your child
  • Gauging the right level of response from a distance – determining what requires action beyond providing a listening ear or supportive advice
  • Communicating less frequently with your son or daughter
  • Seeing your child discovering that college is more academically challenging than high school and adjusting to a more intense work load
  • Worrying about their safety and well-being
  • Realizing your loss of control (or perceived control) in their lives
  • Disagreeing with their choices and decisions – personal, academic, social
  • Understanding that much of their life is now “off camera” for you
  • Being away from them when they are ill or injured or very unhappy
  • Understanding that your son or daughter is a young adult with requisite responsibilities
  • Adjusting to a new level of privacy afforded to your child by the college compared to their high school

Some of the wonderful things about parenting a college student include:

  • Being excited about what lies ahead for them
  • Getting to know your son or daughter as an adult; watching them grow and change
  • Gaining a heightened appreciation of them when they are home, and of their activities in college
  • Trusting their ability to handle what they will encounter, and knowing that you have helped prepare them well for college
  • Appreciating how interesting your son or daughter is becoming
  • Feeling some relief from day-to-day responsibilities for your child
  • Regaining some of your own, non-parental identity

How to Prepare Yourself

Having a child go to college is nearly as big a transition for parents as it is for the student.  If you will be a first time college parent, you may feel a mix of excitement and curiosity along with a sense of intense loss and grief.  You may feel out of your depth because the K environment is so different from home and other familiar settings.  Much of this may feel very personal, as if you yourself were going to college.   All of this, and more, is normal.  This process will affect you strongly as a parent, and we want to help you to make the transition in a healthy and productive way, just as we work toward a healthy transition for students.  We encourage you to think about the following questions as a way to prepare for your own transition:

  • How do you feel about your child leaving for K – happy, sad, excited, worried, anxious, proud, relieved, or all of the above?
  • What will be the biggest changes for you – practical, emotional, and other - once your son or daughter is at K?  What will you do to accommodate these changes? 
  • What do you most worry about regarding your child’s move to K? For you and for your child?   What will help mitigate these worries?
  • What information from K, if any, would be helpful to you as you make this transition?
  • How you will set expectations with your student for communication (how often, who will initiate), financial matters (who pays what bills), visits to campus or home, plans for break and vacation periods, and other important matters (family obligations, religious observance, dating, alcohol, as examples)?

Experienced college parents tell us that the most important things are to trust your student and their judgment (knowing that it won’t always be perfect) and to be patient in reacting to what you hear from your son or daughter.  Typically, the single most effective thing you can do as the parent of a college student is to listen and, when appropriate, offer advice.  This, of course, is easier said than done, and may be based on your own level of confidence in your son or daughter. 

If you feel confident in your child’s ability make the most of their college experience, you will make this transition much more easily.  If you are not confident in your student (and their decision making), what will build your confidence?  If your student’s ability to navigate the college experience (or at least parts of it) concerns you, what will diminish the concern?

How to Prepare Your Student 

Ensure that your child is well prepared to manage the daily and longer-term tasks of college life.  Their decision-making skills are very important, and the more practice they have prior to coming to campus, the more competent they will become.  We recommend that you encourage your student to learn to:

  • Do laundry and clean their living space
  • Learn to manage their financial affairs – budget, track credit card spending and ATM withdrawals, balance a checkbook, comparison shop for personal necessities
  • Make their own appointments, complete their own paperwork, and contact offices for information
  • Manage personal affairs – arise on their own in the morning, take care of/prepare meals,  manage medication regimen if relevant, monitor health and well-being, sleep, eat healthily, and manage time
  • Make their own decisions and manage the consequences, even of “small” daily decisions – remembering family and other obligations, following through on commitments to others 

The W Curve

When students are preparing for study abroad, we talk to them about the typical response to the experience of living in another culture, described as the W Curve – we start at a high point at the top of the W, typically head downward to a crisis point, and then gradually return to a more adaptive perspective.  When we return home, we “do” the second half of the W – our excitement at being home gradually gives way to disenchantment, eventually to a crisis and, finally, to a sense of belonging.

We find that this model can be applied to the adaptation to any new situation – like beginning college.

The first phase of the adjustment, which typically lasts several weeks, is the honeymoon phase during which everything about the new place or situation is exhilarating.  We are enthusiastic as we discover new aspects of the culture/college and find all of what we are learning interesting and exciting.

The honeymoon phase gives way to the increasing participation phase and during this time, which typically also lasts about a month, we begin to feel more frustration, impatience and restlessness about the way things are done in the new environment.  We are not as enthusiastic as we were earlier, and we begin to question the values we see in the new place and our own values. 

The frustration culminates in the crisis phase, which typically occurs in the third month.  At this point, we do not like the new environment – even feel hostile to it.  The differences from home feel like too much to deal with and we become discouraged about our ability to adapt.  Homesickness and loneliness are part of this phase.  If we were offered the opportunity to go home, we would take it.  At K, this period fall during our winter break, so you may expect an occasional bump in the road as your student returns home. 

After this very tough time, most people begin to adapt to the new environment.  The adaptation phase usually involves a sense of understanding the differences and seeing both the advantages and disadvantages.  People report greater comfort with their surroundings and a sense of belonging in the new place.

When re-entry happens, the cycle repeats.  First, most of us are very happy to be home and to see everyone we’ve missed and enjoy all the activities/foods/conveniences we did not have when we were away.  We experience the honeymoon of re-entry.

After several weeks, however, we start increasing our participation at home and notice the things that we don’t like so well – things that we liked better about the host country/college.  We begin to miss our experience away and to feel frustrated with some of the ways of home.

Again, a crisis typically occurs, when we would love to return to the host country/”K”.  We miss everything about our other world and how we felt there.  We would go back today if that were possible.

Finally, we begin to adapt to home.  We see the differences, but know there is good in both places.  We feel clearer that we belong where we are and can once again feel at home here.

This model seems to be useful because it gives us a frame for understanding our experience and our feelings about it – and for normalizing what can be very difficult times.  We hope that knowing about the W Curve will be useful to you as parents in understanding your student’s experience and reassuring them that they will be okay, that the process of adaptation is a tough one and they are right where they need to be.