Here’s what I’ve learned, from college experts, campus orientations and my own years of being a college parent, about how to navigate this shift in the relationship.
Give them space. College students need a grace period to meet people, get involved in campus life and focus on their new environment without constant reminders of home. No matter how eager they are for college, it’s not easy to get used to new surroundings and sleeping in a new bed. Give them the space to figure it out. That doesn’t mean you don’t have conversations, but follow their lead. One of my kids texted constantly, while the other didn’t touch base for weeks on end.
Be prepared to listen. Often kids call or text when they’re feeling low, and trust me, you’ll hear about the roommate drama, the rotten exam or the malfunctioning laundry machines. But once kids have unloaded, they move on, leaving you to worry into the night about a problem that likely doesn’t exist for them the next day. Or if it does, it’s their issue to solve. Try not to let their download ruin your day. It’s probably not ruining theirs.
Offer guidance, not a quick fix. If your child is struggling with a normal issue, such as not finding people they like, hear them out (see above), because a sympathetic ear is helpful. But don’t leap to offer a fix, such as contacting a resident adviser on their behalf. We want our kids to become competent and independent, and they need to develop problem-solving skills. They also won’t learn to get comfortable with discomfort if we handle things for them. At my son’s recent transfer student orientation, the student health center director told parents the staff has noticed that today’s students have a tougher time regulating emotion. But uncomfortable emotions are part of being human, and students need to sit with them and learn how to move through them. Gaining confidence in a new setting takes time. Let them know all their feelings are normal.
Point them to resources. When your student complains about homework or a dorm challenge, ask them about resources on campus, and nudge them to pursue those avenues. Colleges have staff ready to help students. Resist the urge to micromanage. If students don’t know where to start, suggest they check with their resident adviser. Resources include the tutoring center, academic advising, career services center, student health clinic, financial aid office, multicultural center, first-generation center and more. Engaging with other students and professional staff is the best way to adjust. Keep pointing them back to campus.
Mind the FERPA form. The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects your student’s information from kindergarten through higher education. Once kids get to college, rights transfer to them, and parents aren’t allowed access without permission. If your child adds you as an authorized user to their student account, you will see term bills and can set up a payment method, but don’t expect any additional access. Don’t push for their account password to see grades. If you’re concerned about how they’ll handle academics, initiate conversations about what you expect them to tell you. You’re partnering now, not tracking. The transition to college can feel like a leap of faith, and it’s financially scary. I get it. If you’re paying the bill and you want to see their grades at the end of term, prepare them for that idea. Meanwhile, back off and let them manage their progress. They’ll experience hurdles, and they need room to flail a bit.
Don’t freak out about grades. It’s normal for students to experience a dip in grades in college. That doesn’t mean they can’t handle the work. They just need to find their equilibrium with study habits, time management and the social scene, and it may take a semester. Don’t pester them about grades right after midterms. It’s intimidating enough for them to realize a course grade might hinge on a midterm and a final exam. Your anxiety won’t boost their confidence. Tell them you know they can handle it. Perfectionist students, in particular, don’t need added anxiety.
Of course, some students do go off the rails with the party scene or another personal challenge. If you suspect they’re not managing their time or they’re skipping class — you likely won’t know it for a while — suggest they visit an academic adviser. Talking to someone who’s not their parent might illuminate a deeper issue. Keep in mind, advisers prefer to meet with students before they’ve dug themselves into a hole.
Ordering groceries for them? Stop. You’re paying for a meal plan, after all. And no, your student doesn’t need a laundry service. Campuses provide washing machines. Students need to develop life skills, and now’s the time to start. Their roommates and future partner will appreciate your not making life too easy for them. Try to hold back on all the extras.
Know when to get involved. You know your child best, and no one is paying attention like you are. If you suspect a mental-health condition is sending your student into a tailspin, or if they’re experiencing a recurring illness or unfamiliar allergy that doesn’t sound normal, it’s okay to ask questions and follow up. When a health or safety issue isn’t being addressed in a timely way, a phone call from a parent can make a difference. I called last year on one child’s behalf when a bed bug situation wasn’t resolved properly and my student wasn’t getting helpful responses. You don’t want a mysterious health issue, like exposure to mold, to derail your kid.
Harlan Cohen’s books “The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College” and “The Naked Roommate: For Parents Only — A Parent’s Guide to the New College Experience,” are great resources for students and their families on navigating all sorts of scenarios.
Your student will experience bumps, but most of the time those challenges will be part of the normal growth of a young adult. Have faith. Your kids really can do it. Give them the space to problem-solve, and you’ll be amazed at the growth within the first year. You got them to college. Now, let them sail.