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How to Respond When Things Get HardJennifer Sullivan
In spite of the heart-tug that we feel as we drop our freshmen off at college, we send them with optimism and a hope that they will adjust and thrive. We also worry, but assume that as time passes we will worry less, and most of us do.
However, for some parents, it becomes increasingly evident as the first semester progresses that things are not going well.
Perhaps it is homesickness or unhappiness, dissatisfaction with the school, feeling overwhelmed, or something more serious. Throughout the college years, as students work toward increased independence and responsibility, they make choices, and choices come with consequences. Consequences may take the form of poor or failing grades, judicial or legal sanctions, physical or mental health concerns, social or money issues, or an overall feeling that things aren't working.
It’s every parent’s worst fear realized.
For some parents, it’s easy. Their student shares problems. For other parents, the situation may not be as clear. Your student may be less willing or able to communicate details, or may not even realize the seriousness of a situation.
But your parent intuition, or gut feeling, tells you that something is wrong. You’ve seen concerning signs: your student calls home a lot — or never calls; your student never wants to come home — or comes home all of the time; once home, your student doesn’t want to go back to school; you notice dramatic physical changes such as weight loss or gain; you sense that your student isn’t going to class, isn’t getting things done, or has very low grades. Most troubling, you see multiple signs and themes that persist.
You want to help (it’s what parents do) but don’t know how.
There are ways. Here are four steps to moving forward with your student.
If there is something wrong, this is a moment of crisis for your student. Your student can’t fix something they can’t face, but they may need your help facing it. Remind your student that, in addition to being a time of emotional upheaval, a crisis is also a turning point at which the trend of future events is determined. It can be a positive as well as challenging moment. Your student’s decisions now are important and impactful.
Do you remember when your toddler fell down and immediately looked to you for a response? If you looked alarmed, they began to cry. If you shrugged and laughed, so did your child. Much like the toddler, your college student looks to you for cues about how to react. You may be angry, shocked, resigned, sad, or overwhelmed — whichever it is, breathe. Take time. Listen. Be calm and reassuring (even if that’s not how you feel), but be honest. Acknowledge your emotions and acknowledge your student’s emotions, too.
Your student doesn’t want to disappoint you, or admit that they have failed at their attempts at independence and responsibility. You both have work to do.
Much like peeling back the layers of an onion, you need to get to the root of the problem. And the immediate crisis may not be the problem. Your student may see a failing midterm grade, for instance, as a problem. But the failing grade may be the result of not attending class. So attendance seems to be the problem. But why isn’t your student going to class? Are they oversleeping? Is the problem a faulty alarm clock or too much partying late at night or a fear of not being able to do the work? Different answers point to very different solutions.
Your job, as parent, is not to answer the question or propose a solution but to gently (or in some cases sternly) ask appropriate questions. A simple “why?” will help your student peel back the layers and dig deeper. This process of self-examination can be as important as the answer itself.
Once your student has done the difficult work of owning the crisis and finding the root cause of the problem, working together to decide on a solution may be surprisingly simple.
There are questions you can ask to help your student with this stage of the repair process.
Remember, as hard as it may be to stay in the background, your student needs to find the answers, not you. You have an important role as a sounding board as you listen and help your student make sense of the situation and as together you explore options for moving forward.
Once your student has decided on possible solutions, you may need to help create the action plan to get to that solution. This may mean more questions for your student.
From the parent of a first-year student:
“When our son was transported to the hospital this fall for alcohol poisoning, it was all we could do not to get in the car and drive there. But he called and told us not to come. He said Campus Safety would bring him back to the dorm. He knew he would face disciplinary action the next day, but he was ready for that. He had already written to his professors to tell them he’d need to miss a day of class. He was handling it…and we were prouder of him than we’ve ever been.”
Our experiences build our character. Your student, working at transitioning to a new life at college, may stumble, fail, fall. Your toddler tumbled often learning to walk. But each difficulty encountered, each mistake faced, each challenge overcome, makes your student more competent. It is important that we, as parents, help our students not to give up too early, but instead to persist and salvage enough to build upon later.
The lessons your student learns from working through and handling their moment of crisis, finding the causes, deciding on a solution and the steps necessary to get there may be some of the most important lessons of college — the ones that will last a lifetime, leaving both your student (and you) stronger and definitely wiser.
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