by Alicia Wanek
Your child is off to college. Are they ready? Are you?
Remember when it seemed your kids would never grow up? Those endless days we all had when they were little and you didn’t think you could handle one more meltdown, spill, dirty diaper or request for juice when they were supposed to have been asleep hours before? Then you turn around, and they’re grown and going off to college. How can that be when those memories are still so vivid?
My twins have just started their senior year of high school, and I feel this tremendous pressure to fill them with every single word of advice, practical tip on taking care of themselves, and life lesson I think they’ll ever need to know before they leave me forever next year. I need more time!
Jonas Salk said, “Good parents give their children roots and wings: roots to know where home is, wings to fly away and exercise what’s been taught them.” The reality is we still have time to be their parents. Going off to college is the next step toward “full” adulthood, but it doesn’t mean our role is over. We do, however, need to be prepared to let go of the reins a little. Trust that what you’ve been trying to establish for the past 18 years will set them off on the right course.
Advice for parents of new college students abounds. The words of wisdom range from the practical (establishing financial plans and academic expectations), to the psychological (acknowledge your feelings, get support for yourself), to the inspirational (help your children develop their passion, college kids love cookies!). It can be difficult to sort through it all. I’ve read through a lot of information and ended up with my own takeaways.
You’ve done the best you can. Now you’ve got to trust they’ll remember the important stuff.
Your job is changing from teacher to coach, manager to mentor, director to consultant. Kids becoming independent and making their own decisions is a good thing.
Colleges and universities have lots of resources to help your child even when you’re not there. Make sure they know where to go and what’s available.
Develop your own interests. If your life has centered around your kids, you need to find something else to focus on.
It’s going to be hard on both of you. Change is never easy. Make sure they know they can come to you when they’re upset, but make sure you have a friend or family member to share your feelings with as well.
I’m sure a year from now I’ll re-read all the suggestions for making the transition easier, but for now I’ve decided I think I’ll be okay. They probably will be, too.
Letting Go: Tips for Parents of New College Students
1 | Starting college is a time of mixed feelings for both parents and students. Even though you have likely been looking forward to this day, many parents experience some degree of separation anxiety when the idea of your child leaving suddenly becomes a reality.
2 | Experiencing a bit of anxiety about your student’s future as well as your own is normal. You are going through a major transition in your life as you adjust not only to daily life without your student at home, but also to the idea that your child is now an emerging adult looking forward to experiencing life on their own.
3 | Embracing the change is one way to deal with these feelings. Letting go is tough, but giving your student and you some time to adjust will lead to a rewarding adult relationship.
Talk about it. Don’t wait until moving day to discuss your thoughts and feelings about your student leaving for college. Your excitement and joy are likely mixed with nostalgia and loss. Talk with other parents about their experiences and how they coped. Also, your child is likely experiencing similar feelings. Sharing will help normalize the experience.
Expect change. As emerging adults, students will change as they explore who and what they want to be. Ideas and attitudes may change. Appearance may change. Majors may change. These changes may not align with your hopes and expectations. Support and patience as your student works through these changes will help them learn to chart the course of their own lives and promote healthy adult relationships.
Coach don’t fix. Now is the time to go from manager to mentor. Students often confuse newfound autonomy with lack of responsibility. Guiding and encouraging them to do things for themselves will help them gain the experience they will need to meet life’s challenges. Show your student by your actions that you will support but not intervene when a problem arises or “do it” for them when they face an unfamiliar or challenging task. Encourage your student to learn about campus resources and to make use of them to address concerns and solve their problems.
Adapt. First year college students face a lot of unfamiliar academic and personal challenges. Often you and your student have expectations about the college experience that don’t quite pan out in the face of these challenges. Adapting expectations with success and failure is critical for a healthy attitude towards personal growth. Confidence comes not from having a solution to every problem, but from knowing you can handle problems.
Stay in touch. College students like knowing you care, but sometimes they experience resentment if they feel like you are intruding on their newfound independence. Knowing that your concern is about their safety and well being and not their ability or “right” to make decisions on their own can help keep communications open and positive. Talk about staying in touch so you both understand each others needs for communication. For example, you want to talk every night or you want to check in at least weekly. This way expectations are clear.
Engage in your life. Your life is changing too. Give yourself, your partner, and other family members still at home the time and space needed to adjust. Keep your perspective by viewing going to college as just another milestone in your child’s life. Enjoy this exciting time in both your lives!
When to Seek Help
Students have a wide range of reactions to starting college life. Some take to campus life right away, others experience a short period of homesickness before adjusting to their new surroundings.
Some students have more difficulty with the transition to college and may experience more troublesome thoughts and feelings. Some indicators that a student may be experiencing difficulty with separation are:
• Coming home every weekend or increasing distress
about returning to campus after a visit home
• Reluctance to attend classes or socialize
• Excessive worry about the safety or well-being of loved ones
Content courtesy of University of North Carolina Wilmington Counseling Center, www.uncw.edu/counseling