As students settle in to their new lives as college students, I know how hard it is for parents to become college parents. As both a professor and faculty adviser to incoming college freshmen, I’ve worked with many students adjusting to life on campus.
While parents naturally want to do all they can to ensure that their children succeed, many have a hard time knowing when to hold on, and when to finally let go. I still have seven years before I drop the first of my own children off on a college campus, and I still have a preschooler learning how to get through the day without a nap.
Yet, I still feel a kindred connection to the parents I meet as they face one of the ultimate milestones in parenting.
I turned to the experts to better understand how parents can support their college students while also giving their children the autonomy they need.
Offer support, but don’t solve their problems
Parenting expert and family doctor Deborah Gilboa explained that while milestones appear frequently in early childhood, as children grow up, there are “vast wastelands” between milestones. This can make it challenging for parents to know how and when to start offering their children autonomy. “Within these ‘wastelands,’ exist the time when parents need to separate the ‘we’ into ‘I and you,’ ” Gilboa says.
Rachel Nelson is an academic adviser at the University of Florida. She recommends parents not only be supportive but stay open-minded. “Too often, students feel familial pressure and guilt to pursue certain majors, earn certain grades,” Nelson says. “Recognize that their journey to success and happiness may be very different from your own. And, that’s okay.”
This process of separating peaks when children leave home. “This is the hard work of being the parent to a college student,” Gilboa says to students and parents. “You got them here, now it’s time to let them go and let them thrive.”
Lynn O’Sickey oversees academic advising for residential students in the University of Florida College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Academic Advising Center. She reminds parents that while they can’t solve their college-age children’s problems, they can still be a source of both strength and of support. Now a parent to college students herself, O’Sickey is experiencing this firsthand. “Your student is most likely going to turn to you when they are feeling most vulnerable,” she recently shared with other college parents. “You are their safe place where they can share their worst fears and frustrations and be met with support and sympathy.”
Ask questions before giving advice
Gilboa’s overarching advice to parents is to “ask before offering help.” This isn’t always easy. “It is much harder to show empathy without intervening,” Gilboa emphasizes. “For most parents, it’s so much a part of our habit to micromanage our kids’ lives.”
As students settle into college life, they will find that they are over-prepared in some areas, but also underprepared in others, Gilboa says. Instead of stepping in right away to fix problems, she suggests students are better served if parents first ask them, “what do you not feel prepared for?” Parents can follow up with “What can I do to best support you?” A student might ask for help with laundry, or perhaps assistance with finding a new place to live. These are the times when a parent can offer help while still respecting the student’s autonomy.
Ophir Lehavy is a student success coach at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. She recommends that parents ask their child questions like “What do you want to get out of your college experience? What are you hoping for?” She suggests parents return to these conversations when their students are stressed.
“Those initial thoughts can change as they are exposed to new people, subjects, and experiences,” Lehavy explains. “When the semester is underway and they are in the midst of deadlines, remind them of that initial conversation, how much they have already accomplished, and that you are there to support them.”
Give advice, then give space
O’Sickey reminds parents that “students often call for support when they are at their lowest.” She recalled times when her college-age son called her in crisis. She would give him some advice, but then wouldn’t hear back “for hours or even days.” When she’d finally get another call, he’d casually tell her “Oh, yeah, that worked out okay.”
“Try not to panic,” she says. “Remember that you’re their outlet and that chances are once they’ve vented, they’ll go off and begin to address the situation and move on.”
Akilah Brown teaches first year students at Pasadena City College. She is also a parent to a freshman college student. While her daughter was in high school, she spoke with her multiple times a day. She knows this might change. “Don’t make your student feel guilty for not speaking to you as often,” Brown says. “They are going to be busy making friends and enjoying the freedom of being college students. … I think it’s fair to have a regular check in day or time to talk, but, unless parents feel their children are engaging in risky behavior, let them enjoy being on their own.”
Always listen to your gut
Of course, sometimes, parents must get involved, especially if they are concerned about the student’s safety or well-being. “You are the expert on your child,” Gilboa stresses but suggests that when available, and if you tend to overreact, you could first check in with a parenting partner, counselor, or trusted friend.
Nelson urges parents to help break the stigma surrounding mental health. “Set the standard that talking to a counselor is okay, that asking for help is okay, that addressing your feelings instead of ignoring or burying them is okay.” She encourages parents to not only educate themselves on the mental health issues that college students face, but to also learn about the resources available to assist students at his or her institution.
When should a parent step in?
Jennifer Sager is a mental health expert who regularly works with college students.
“College students need space to make their own mistakes,” she said. “But there are some experiences that are ‘above their pay grade.’” Sager believes that college students still need a fair amount of direction. She noted that statistically, college students face significant issues. “Often, eating disorders are prevalent in 25 percent of college females,” Sager says. “Acquaintance rape, being drugged and sexually assaulted, and violence in dating relationships are also notable concerns for many college students.”
Still, it’s okay to for students sometimes struggle, or even to sometimes fail, she said. “College is a relatively safe place for them to do that, and it’ll teach them a lot about themselves.” But Brown believes that parents need to step in if they see their student showing “a lack of interest in pursuing the goals that were always important to them.”
Even in the face of uncertainty, most experts agree that parents of college students need to take a deep breath, and they need to step back. Parents tend to think that by fixing our children’s problems, we are showing them love, Gilboa says. “But often, trust is far a better expression of showing them that love.”
I thought back to the times in my life where I felt I truly stretched myself. While my parents were always supportive, it was during those key moments of growth that I was mostly on my own.
“We have a lot more faith in ourselves when we become our own problem solvers,” Gilboa says. “Parents must learn to show their children empathy without intervention. That means listening and caring, but not solving the problem.”
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