So, your child is starting college. Together you have searched, researched, discussed, visited and, you hope, chosen the right college. The day has arrived when you must unpack the car and leave your son or daughter in a new place to start a new phase of life. But the work has really just begun: What happens over the next eight weeks is critical to the entire college experience. And, make no mistake, the next eight weeks will be very difficult ones for your child.
What freshmen go through is a range of normal, predictable emotional responses associated with loss and recovery. And, as a parent, you can be the first and best source of help.
What can you do that really does help? I talk to parents about this at the beginning of each academic year. I rely on a panel of experts from across the country: last year's freshmen. I also rely on a freely adapted version of the stages of adjustment to loss described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her classic work, "On Death and Dying."
The first thing that really helps is for you to truly understand the process of freshman adjustment. Even if you attended college, your own recollections can sometimes play tricks on you.
Although the problems may be quickly overcome and forgotten, adjustment to college presents a serious challenge: It presents the physical challenge of eating new foods and sleeping in a new bed. It presents the intellectual challenge of the stress and independence of college-level work. (Even a good high-school student can be surprised by this.) And it presents the social and personal challenge of community living -- the exposure to new types of people and to a variety of different life styles and values. Plus, all of these challenges take place in the context of the loss of the usual support groups -- parents, friends, and familiar surroundings seem far removed.
How do freshmen respond to these challenges? With feelings and actions that provide parents with an opportunity to have a positive effect. That is the good news about the next eight weeks.
What will you see?
Denial. In this early phase, freshmen act as though they are really not at college but rather having some temporary experience. They may not unpack or make any attempt to put things on the walls of their room. The high-school sweat shirt rather than the new one from college is the preferred attire.
In the most extreme cases, there is no attempt to form friendships or learn about the new environment. And, in a day, a week or a semester, the freshman has packed and left for home -- a victim of freshman adjustment problems and, most unfortunately, a self-perceived failure.
More often, the freshman basically remains oriented toward home in the first few weeks. Weekend visits home occur as often as possible. Daily phone calls are pretty routine.
Sometimes a few favorite possessions from home can help to preserve a sense of continuity for the freshman. Quilts, posters and even stereo equipment can serve as "transitional objects" functioning in the same way that the blanket or teddy bear served to comfort your child on the first days of kindergarten.
Cars, though favored by high-school seniors as graduation presents, do not help the transition process for college freshmen. They make it too easy to escape rather than to learn to cope with the challenges of college life.
As a parent, you should cherish the few moments when small things brought from home mean a lot -- soon, the only important reminder from home will be cash.
Anger. In this phase, parents have to show a lot of self-restraint. After months of searching for just the right school, you will not want to hear that absolutely everything at college is terrible. It will sound unbelievably awful, and you will be tempted to intervene. Chances are, however, it is the experience of loss and not the realities of the college environment that causes freshman anger.
My favorite illustration of the anger of freshman adjustment used to be the story about an open student meeting a few years ago where a freshman expressed her fury at the college. After all, the college library was guilty of using the Library of Congress classification system, no doubt to make life difficult for students.
She was prepared to transfer over that issue unless something was done. We could have changed our library to suit her, but, of course, we didn't and, incidentally, she didn't -- transfer, that is. I can't use this story any more because she graduated last year, an officer of a couple of student organizations.
So now I have a new story. This one is about the angry freshman who demanded an immediate room change because the room dimensions did not match the dimensions of the rug brought from home.
Woe to the parents who involve themselves in solving these types of problems. With each problem successfully resolved, its importance dissolves and a new, more critical issue emerges.
Bargaining. This phase is a favorite of mine. The moment the last loan application has been processed and the tuition bill has been paid in full, the phone call comes: "I'm not ready for college." Or, if your son or daughter is enrolled in Psychology 101, "I don't want to waste your money." Beware the teenager unwilling to waste a parent's money.
Depression. This is perhaps the hardest phase for freshmen. It is surely the hardest for parents. Your child is sad and lonely. The phone calls leave you shaken. There is no easy way to endure the pain of someone you love.
But there is something you can do. Remember that freshmen always call home when things are at their worst. If you place the calls, though, sometimes things won't seem so bad.
Finally, it happens. Not a visit or a letter or a phone call in weeks. You frantically call the police and the hospitals to find out what terrible accident has befallen your teenager. Congratulations. You've made it to:
Adjustment. From now on, "moving back" or "going home" is something that happens at the end of a school vacation.
Try to acknowledge freshman feelings and try not to invalidate them. "Yes, it is hard" is a better and more comforting response to a suffering freshman than "Don't be silly," "You don't mean that" or, worst of all, "But these are the best years of your life!"
Help your teenager get involved in college. There is a myth out there among parents that I have heard repeated a hundred times: "I want him to hold off on playing tennis till he's adjusted to the dorm and his classes."
Involvement, participating in lots of college activities, is what makes adjustment happen. Holding back, waiting, staying out of things just makes the feelings of isolation more real.
There is another kind of involvement in college that is also important. Freshmen need to learn to solve their own problems.
When a problem arises at college, it is very tempting to parents to step in and try to solve it. After all, you have been solving your child's problems for a lot of years. But many times the identified problem is not the real one.
More important, when you solve the problem, your son or daughter does not learn how to solve problems without relying on you. And that is a skill a college-age adult needs to have.
So, when a problem arises, let your teenager solve it while (as the saying goes) he still knows everything. All the resources of the college are there to help.
Build bridges between home and school. Call. Write often -- the average college freshman visits the mail room four times an hour. Invite roommates home for a weekend or out to dinner. Send food. Chocolate chip cookies have been shown to increase the prestige and popularity of the college freshman.
Leave when the orientation program says to, and let your teenager get on with the business of adjustment. Come back when you are asked -- for Parents' Weekend, homecomings, or whatever -- you will be happy with the changes you see and you yourself will feel a whole lot better.
If it's any comfort, thousands of teenagers and their families go through this every year, and the vast majority do fine. The blessed blur of memory does indeed make these some of the best years of a person's life. Deborah Taylor is an associate professor of psychology at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H.