If you have a new high school graduate in your family starting college this fall, you probably have a lot on your mind. You might be thinking about payment plans and dorm essentials; maybe you’re also a little worried about the adjustment to college in general and the unfamiliar challenges it will bring. Navigating the complexities of a new chapter in life can be tough not only for freshmen but also for their parents or guardians.
I have about 20 years of experience working with students and families in higher education, and as the director of the Office of Family Engagement here at Barnard, it’s my job to facilitate a smooth transition to college life for everyone involved.
Over the past couple of decades, I’ve seen major changes in how students and their parents experience college. It’s not just the students who are making a major life shift; parents are, too. In fact, many colleges are recognizing this fact by engaging with parents through programming, outreach, newsletters and events.
As children enter emerging adulthood, it’s easy for a healthy level of parental involvement to veer into the territory of hovering and micromanagement. When do attempts to provide a helpful “leg up” turn into “helicopter” parenting?
One of the toughest adjustments parents have to make when sending their children off to school, whether it’s to a big school that’s far away or the community college down the street, is how schools engage with families. Throughout high school, you were probably aware of your child’s academic progress and attendance and could even track it if your school had an online portal for families. Colleges, however, do not share information regarding grades or attendance with families. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, known as FERPA, protects student records and gives families a right to see their child’s school records until the age of 18. But once their child turns 18, those rights transfer to the student. College students are in charge of their own records; if they choose to share their grades, transcripts or other records with their parents, that is their choice. Schools cannot and will not reveal anything to parents without a student’s explicit consent.
Most parents find this sudden change frustrating, especially if their child isn’t one who shares a lot in the first place. Even parents who know how their child is doing socially and emotionally can feel disconnected when they’re out of the loop on academics. Parents often call administrators to ask if they can talk about their child’s grades or performance in a particular course or semester, and are usually disappointed (occasionally even angry) when they learn that there are limits to what schools can share.
Moreover, the highly structured environment of high school gives way to a more flexible schedule and a new world where your child calls the shots: whether to go to class, attend practice, stay up all night or go to bed early. And the hardest part for parents is the not knowing.
Barnard’s president, Sian Leah Beilock, has special insight into this area. Her scholarly work as a cognitive scientist clearly demonstrates that the anxiety we tend to feel in high-pressure situations can cloud our thinking.
Research shows that when children leave the nest for college it’s an emotionally challenging time for all involved. A child’s sudden absence from home will often cause feelings of sadness that last a few months. While freshmen have a new environment to distract them and are able to take advantage of on-campus resources, parents and guardians may not know where to turn as they temporarily struggle to adjust. Below are a few suggestions for alleviating your worries and feeling more connected to your child and the university or college:
- Talk to your child. Create a communication plan and schedule a time to talk, not just text. Maybe this happens once a day, once a week or once a month, but hearing their voice or seeing their face through FaceTime or Skype is important, and not just when they are calling to complain about the food or their friends. Ask the right questions. Even students who have great, open communication with their parents sometimes want to hide things. So don’t ask “How are things going?” or “Are you doing well in your classes?” These types of general inquiries can come across as insincere: Do you really want to know, or is “Good” the hoped-for response? To elicit detailed, honest responses, it’s important to ask pointed questions: What is your favorite class this semester? What are you learning? Are there any good books you are reading? What’s your least favorite class? Why?
- Promote self-sufficiency. Ask your child about resources on campus. Do they know who their academic adviser is? Do they know where the dean’s office is? Do they know their residential adviser? Knowing these people will enable your child to ask for help if and when they run into a problem.
- Help them write scripts. Students may be embarrassed or intimidated to ask their professors for help when they need it. Help them find the words and practice with them; run through possible scenarios where you pretend to be the professor. Allow yourself to be a sounding board.
- Don’t edit their papers. Or offer to tutor them. Or read their books for them. You’ve been helping them all their lives, and if they run into an academic problem, the instinct to fix it can be strong — but you’ve got to fight it. Encourage them to seek out a campus tutor, a writing center or other campus resources. Most colleges have multiple offices and support systems available.
- If you suspect something is very wrong, call the school. Sometimes, your child might be giving worrisome answers to the questions you have been asking, or their behavior seems unusual. Trust your instincts: If you are worried about their safety or if their academic progress seems to be suffering because of physical or mental deterioration, call the school for help. Find out what resources exist for parents, and when in doubt, you can call the dean of students. Most campuses have many administrators dedicated to helping students, and alerting them to serious worries will enable them to offer counseling or other assistance.
The secret to making the shift to college a successful one for your family, while staying informed, is to strive for a strong relationship with your child that is built on a foundation of mutual trust and respect. It might seem counterintuitive, but giving them their space and freedom will encourage open lines of communication. The more confidence you show in their ability to be independent, the greater their willingness to share the mundane (or monumental) details of their days — and maybe even their grades — with the most important adults in their lives.
Natalie Friedman, PhD, is Dean of Studies and Director of the Office of Family Engagement at Barnard College.