How to Be a Parent While Your Teen is Attending College
Your parenting role alters significantly when your teen enrolls in college. Here are some tips from the experts on how to negotiate these uncharted waters:
Be a coach.
College students usually call their parents for reassurance when things aren’t going well, and call their friends with the latest exciting news. When you get those phone calls, where your teen is in a panic, stressed, or crying about something, do not panic. This is normal, and you absolutely should not solve his or her problem for them. Your teen needs you to be calm and reassuring, but not step in and try to take over. They will rely on your strength and your confidence in their ability to solve their problem themselves. Encourage your child to use the appropriate campus resources — to go to the health service or career center, to talk to an advisor, dean, a counselor or tutor.
Expect minimal communication from the college.
Because your child is beyond the age of 18, you will be not notified of your child’s grades, their behavior, upcoming requirements, or pretty much anything else. The academic, health, social, and emotional concerns that you once monitored closely are now your child’s territory to negotiate. It will feel disconcerting to parents, but because a college student is a legal adult, most aspects of his or her life are private, and that includes grades, medical issues, and legal matters. Fortunately, colleges provide students with many resources to help them make academic and career decisions as well as develop life skills. You will need to depend on your child to inform you about their grades and any other issues they are facing. Encourage them to be open and honest.
Be an anchor.
Despite their newfound independence, most college students want everything at home to stay the same. They will feel betrayed if you do not tell them about a change and they discover it when they return home. Keep your child informed about changes at home, whether it’s moving a younger sibling into their room, illness in the family, or the death of a pet. By letting them know what is happening at home, they will feel more secure and maintain a sense of trust.
Do not say…
“When I was in college…” Sorry to tell you this, but college life today is very different from the campus scene 25 or 30 years ago. Do not even try to draw comparisons.
“These are the best years of your life.” A stressed out or homesick student does not want to hear that this is as good as life gets.
Ask about their interests.
College has so much more to share than just academics. Yes, you might want to know how their grades are, but don’t focus solely on that alone. Invite your child to share their discovery of new ideas, interests and passions. Ask about their friends and outside activities. College will change your teen, as it should, so follow their progress and observe how they become more well-rounded.
Send care packages.
Nothing thrills a college student more than seeing a little slip of paper in their mailbox announcing they have a package. Sending treats, photographs of home, holiday decorations, or even quarters for the washing machine are reminders that say, “I’m thinking of you.”
College is a time of change. Students will change the way they think and look. Many will change their majors and career goals. They will change the people they hang out with and whom they admire. It is important that parents stay calm and patient as they explore their identity. This is that perfect moment that you can show unconditional love, when parents can demonstrate that they value their teen for who they are, not what they do. It’s one of the greatest gifts a parent can give.
When your child leaves your home and strikes out on their own, there are many changes to which everyone must adjust. Try to stay patient with your child and yourself. We highly recommend that parents find another couple or a support group that is working through the same “empty nest” issues – this can be very helpful in understanding the range of emotions that everyone feels and in talking through ideas to support your college teen while letting them go.