My College:
Family Life

Letting Go — An interview With Karen Levin Coburn

Diane Schwemm

Book cover of Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Understanding the College Years by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger

I first read Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger three years ago as I prepared to send my oldest son off for his freshman year.

I’m devouring it again, in a brand-new, thoroughly revised and updated edition that reflects the realities of college life today. The only thing slowing me down is that every paragraph or two I’m underlining and making little check marks and exclamation points in the margin.

With two in college and one in high school, the process of “letting go” will be a big part of my life for years to come.

I’m thankful for the insights of this book, and even more thankful that co-author Karen Levin Coburn, Senior Consultant in Residence at Washington University in Saint Louis, recently took the time to answer questions from CollegiateParent.

I was interested in any advice she could offer our audience, and also thoughts on how being a college parent has changed since the first edition of Letting Go was published almost twenty years ago.

Question from CollegiateParent: Are college parents today more anxious or does it just seem that way?
Answer from Karen Levin Coburn:

Declining admissions rates and rising tuition costs. Breaches in campus safety, student unrest and sexual assault. An uncertain job market and increasing student debt.

These are just a few of the concerns of today’s anxious parents in addition to the timeless anxieties that accompany a child’s departure for college: Will he make friends? Will she study enough? Get enough sleep? Like her roommate?

Though parental concern is understandable, the constant repetition and discussion in our media-driven society heighten the anxiety of even the most steady parents. Information and misinformation spread around the internet, and an isolated incident of a quickly resolved campus lock-down or yet another report of a mishandled sexual assault case or a story about a top student rejected at ten medical schools quickly spreads throughout the country along with the chorus of anxiety-filled comments that follow.

Anxiety escalates. Students read these reports too, and it often falls on parents to help them distinguish rumor from reality, or individual circumstance from widespread norm.

Q: What are some of the things parents commonly don’t understand about how things work on campus that, if we had better information, we might be able to step back more comfortably?

Campus communities have more safety nets than most parents realize. Residence halls are staffed by well-trained upper class students or graduate assistants and Student Affairs professionals to help create a vibrant and inclusive community. They are on the front lines to help with roommate conflicts, homesickness, anxiety, academic stress and other concerns. Deans, academic advisors, counselors and career advisors, tutors and learning specialists all provide support.

The catch is students have to seek out and use these services. Often students — especially freshmen — who are desperately trying to assert their independence confuse the idea of being independent with the belief that it’s a weakness to ask for help — and mistakenly believe that they need to do everything themselves.

This is where parents can step in and be helpful. It’s easy for parents today to become familiar with campus resources. All schools have listed these resources on their websites, and most even have a special Parents page or portal with links to all of the resources and services. Just knowing that all these services are available can be reassuring to parents. And when a student calls home complaining about a roommate or worried about an upcoming chemistry test or is concerned about getting a summer job, the informed parent can act as a wise coach, steering their child to the appropriate resource.

Q: What are some of the main changes you’ve observed in recent years in relationships between parents and students?

Today’s students and parents tend to be in constant contact via text or phone throughout the high school years. They check in with each other multiple times during the day about each other’s comings and goings — about appointments and athletic practices and errands. Many students have led tightly programmed lives, with a full schedule of sports and lessons and tutoring sessions in addition to their hours in school. A lot of them turn to their parents before anyone else for advice and support, and it’s not unusual to hear students talk about their mom or dad as their “best friend.”

When these students come to college, it’s easier for them and their parents to keep in touch than it has ever been before. It’s also more challenging for families to find the balance between staying connected and letting go. College students benefit greatly from having supportive, interested, loving parents. They also benefit from parents who will encourage them to chart their own course, learn to make their own decisions and solve problems.

The newest generation of college parents (Generation X) and their post-millennial children (Generation Z) are even more connected than the Baby Boomers and their offspring. Many of these parents kept baby monitors in the nursery long after infancy, watched webcams in the daycare center, and were used to personalized email reports from teachers on a regular basis.

This generation of students are the true digital natives who grew up with Facebook and smart phones and are always a step ahead of even their technology savvy parents. They have always been connected. They don’t remember a pre-9/11 or pre- recession world. They are more entrepreneurial, more global in outlook, more diverse in race and ethnicity, and more open to gender fluidity. They come to college with high expectations and so do their parents. For many who have been protected and watched over so closely, it will be a challenge to develop the resilience they will need to succeed in the rapidly changing world they will inhabit. And of course this means it will be a challenge for their parents as well, to support them while refraining from running interference.

Q: What are the best things we can do and say to support our students’ independence?

First, encourage them to take over responsibility for these tasks before they leave home:

  • Make their own medical and dental appointments.
  • Take charge of their own finances. Make a budget. Learn to handle credit and debit cards and pay their own bills.
  • Study the course listings and come up with tentative lists of courses before they meet with their advisor.
  • Do their own laundry. Keep the car filled with gas.

Though some of these tasks may seem inconsequential and mundane, students who take over these responsibilities before they leave home develop confidence in handling what they often refer to as “grown up stuff.” The unspoken message from parents is: “I think of you as an adult and have confidence in you to handle adult responsibilities.”


  • Parents can support their students by encouraging them to solve problems by using the resources of the college. Instead of jumping in and taking over, parents can coach students to use the resource at hand.
  • Often just listening is the best support. As one student said after calling home and complaining about a problem, her mom simply said, “sometimes growing up is a b--ch!” The student proclaimed it was the best thing her mother could possibly have said.
  • Showing interest in students’ studies instead of asking about grades is very helpful. This allows students to take the lead — to teach something to parents instead of the other way round.
  • Support students’ evolving interests, changing majors, changing ideas. Always keep in mind who is going to college and whose life path this is.
  • Don’t expect answers to every text or email. Lack of an answer often means your child is engaged and busy and happy!
  • Encourage students to learn from their failures.
Q: What are some of the things we should really try not to do or say?

Don’t tell students, “These are the best years of your life.” No one is happy all the time between the ages of 18 and 22, and on days that they are feeling blue — have just blown an exam, have been dumped by a lover, or are getting the flu — it would be depressing to think, “this is as good as it gets!”

Do not try to talk them into studying something they really don’t want to study just because you think they are good at it, or it will provide a secure future.

Don’t jump in and take over their challenges. Support them in solving problems.

Q: In the area of communication, for parents who may feel too far at one extreme or the other — too much contact/too little — do you have advice?

There is no such thing as the perfect amount of communication. More important than the amount of communication is the quality of it. If students are checking in daily just to say hello or give reports of what’s going on, that’s fine. If they are calling and asking you to figure out what courses they should take or how they should deal with a problem in the residence hall, it’s important to steer them in the right direction and not get caught up in trying to take care of things for them.

Some students are in contact a lot and others simply aren’t. And the same student may change in the amount of communication over the years. It’s helpful if parents and students sit down before departure for college and discuss with each other what their expectations are about keeping in touch — frequency, method, who will initiate the contact — and make a tentative plan. Then revisit that plan and renegotiate expectations over time.

We'll close with a quote from Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Understanding the College Years. Thank you, Karen Levin Coburn!

"Understanding what we and our children are going through reduces our anxiety and validates our reality. It opens our eyes so that we can see what our children’s world is like; it allows us to listen and communicate more effectively. It frees us to help our children become themselves."

Karen Levin Coburn is Senior Consultant in Residence, Washington University in Saint Louis, and co-author of Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Understanding the College Years.
Diane Schwemm is a writer and Managing Editor at CollegiateParent. She and her husband are parents of a college student and two recent graduates. In her off hours, she likes to read, hike and garden and, thanks to the influence of her family, appreciates ballet and basketball equally.
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