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Surviving the Early Weeks as a New College Parent

Suzanne Shaffer

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I said goodbye and boarded a plane after moving my daughter almost 2,000 miles away from home to her new home at college. I didn’t cry when we parted, but I’m sure my fellow passengers may have wondered why I was crying the entire flight home.

Not all the tears were tears of sadness; there were tears of pride and thankfulness, too, and in general a feeling of breathless expectation. She and I were both about to go through some big changes.

The early weeks of my daughter’s college career were a mix of excitement, frustration and panic — and those were just my emotions. After 18 years of doing my best to raise a responsible adult, I wasn’t so sure she would act like one…or so sure I was ready to let her try. Meanwhile, my daughter was, naturally, experiencing her own growing pains.

The first half of the first term of college will certainly require a new approach to parenting on your part as you and your student navigate uncharted waters.

Embrace your changing role.

Even if you live nearby, your parenting role will change. Your college student will still need you, but the day-to-day responsibility of meeting all their needs and helping them fight their battles has given way to that of listening and advising (with a heavy emphasis on the former).

Fear not — you will get the occasional surprise phone call with a truly ridiculous question (“How can I turn my pink t-shirts white again?” or “I have a cold and I feel awful…what did you give me to make me feel better?” reminding you that your student, while claiming independence, is still leaning on you.

Dealing with homesickness

Even students who proclaimed, “I can’t wait to get out of this house and on my own!” will be homesick at some point during the first few months of college. Resist the temptation to bring them home for the weekends or buzz over to campus for a visit (unless, of course, it's Family Weekend — see below). Students need to adjust to the campus culture, make a few friends and find activities to occupy their free time. The feelings usually pass after the first semester and even though your heart will break a bit, give your student a chance to work through those feelings on their own.

Plan for Family Weekend!

Not by accident, Family Weekend is often scheduled for a not-too-early/not-too-late autumn weekend when you and your student will both be ready for a visit. Make plans to attend and let your student know you'll be there. It's something for both of you to look forward to. It will help during those bouts of homesickness, and knowing it won’t be long until you're reunited and both get some much-needed hugs will help you overcome the desire to over-parent.

Don’t expect overnight independence.

It hasn’t been long since high school graduation and some students start college with one foot still in that younger developmental stage. No matter the maturity level, it takes all first-years time to settle in to college life. There will be adjustments in living arrangements, their approach to balancing the academic workload with their social life, handling money and more.

Be patient. Don’t expect overnight adulthood. During the first term, your student will learn how to study, write college papers, attend class (and sometimes skip), keep an eye on their online bank balance, make new friends, detach from those friends if they turn out not to be suitable, make some mistakes, and adjust to a new sleep schedule. This is all part of owning their own choices and moving toward independence. It’s a process.

Anticipate some academic struggle.

College courses are challenging. Your A student in high school may get some B’s or C’s on their first few papers and tests. My perfect A student immediately struggled at college. Her first few grades were C’s. She was devastated and very hard on herself. I encouraged her to take advantage of tutoring, writing labs and study groups and to schedule meetings with her professors to ask for help.

Don’t expect a perfect GPA during your student’s freshman year. It will take them some time to adjust to the college curriculum and testing style, and figure out what's important to study from a lecture. Grades may be lower than you expected but will almost always improve after the first semester. Be patient, encouraging and understanding.

Expect to be ignored (if only a little).

Melissa T. Schultz, author of the book From Mom to Me Again: How I Survived My First Empty Nest Year and Reinvented the Rest of My Life, describes the off-to-college transition as going from “being constantly on call to not being called.” College students are busy. The time they spend on their phone will be communicating with friends, not their parents. Your student will also be spending time studying, attending class, building social relationships and hopefully sleeping. If you don’t hear from them, it’s not that they're ignoring you. They're establishing a life at college and finding their place on campus.

To avoid worrying and endlessly texting with your student, establish some communication guidelines that work for both of you. You can find some suggestions from other parents here.

Send some love.

When my daughter was away at college, I wrote letters. Not emails; letters. It was the first thing I did every morning. They weren’t long, but they were her connection to what was going on at home. I'd include a gift card or pop in some confetti or silly stickers. I’m sure they helped with her homesickness in the beginning. By the start of second semester, however, she informed me that she appreciated the letters, but her mailbox was filling faster than she could empty it. It was a good sign that she was too busy to haunt the mailroom!

I also sent care packages on a regular basis especially during finals week. There are so many options available now to make this simple and easy for you. If you have an Amazon Prime account, you can even have them shipped for free. Or be creative and fill a box with things that will uniquely please your student. You know their favorites!

When a problem arises…

Emory University psychology professor Marshall Duke has spoken for more than 30 years to nervous parents preparing to leave their children at the school. Duke says, “When a problem arises, ‘move like your feet are stuck in molasses.’ The temptation is to intervene when a child calls home with a problem. Remember that many resources exist at college to help students cope with various situations. Express support but give your children time to solve their own problems — it will ultimately benefit them.”

In my experiences with both my son and daughter, they almost always just needed to vent and talk out their problems. They weren’t looking for me to solve them; they simply wanted a listening ear and advice if asked. When you allow your student to resolve dilemmas that arise, you help them move toward independence.


Find more of Suzanne's advice for first-time college parents here:

What I know now that I didn't know then
The importance of hands-off parenting in college


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Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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