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Family Life

What I Know Now That I Didn't Know Then

Suzanne Shaffer

The summer before college is a reflective time for parents. Even before your freshman leaves, empty nest feelings begin to set in. Knowing you’ll have one less at the dinner table in a few weeks tugs on your heart strings. You wonder how you and your son or daughter will handle this transition. Uncharted territory lies ahead for both of you, filled with excitement and many surprises.

I have been where you are. When my daughter left for college, I had no idea what to expect. I didn't attend college myself, and her father and I were already married when he was an undergraduate, so I never experienced those years of being alone, miles away from family and friends. I worried about my daughter — and also worried that I wouldn’t know how to guide her.

We both survived her college years! There were missteps, disappointments, emotional outbursts and tough lessons learned, but along the way, I gained valuable experience. (By the way, it really helps to create a positive support group of other college parents so you have friends to reach out to when these dilemmas arise.)

Here are six things I'd like to share with you.

1. There will be homesickness and pleas to come home.

I wasn't prepared for this. My daughter wanted desperately to go away to college. It was a dream of hers since childhood. But the very first day, she made a statement that sent me spinning: “I can transfer to a local college if I don’t like it here.” What? Somehow I managed to keep my reactions in check. I calmly said, “We’ll see,” and left it at that.

What I didn’t know was this would happen multiple times during her first and second years when times got tough. She begged to come home, drop out or transfer. Each time I listened and assured her things would get better. As she got more involved on campus and learned to cope with her homesickness, things did get better. The best advice I can give to both of you: hang in there.

2. No matter how independent they claim to be, expect cries for help.

Your student has puffed out their chest and made comments like, “I’m an adult. I don’t need your help. I’m perfectly capable of doing this myself.” These are empty words at the first crisis. They will lose their driver’s license or student ID. They will have conflict with a professor and turn to you for help. Your student may experience any number of minor disasters during college and ask for your intervention. Don’t do it. Let them solve the problem themselves. This is part of a learning process for both of you.

3. There will be multiple roommate issues.

Roommate issues are pretty much inevitable, even when the roomies have chosen one another rather than being matched by the college. Don’t interfere. Give your new college student advice, but send them to their RA for help resolving the situation.

Working through disagreements with a roommates is part of learning to get along with others and manage conflict. If you expect some misery in this department, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by a congenial roommate pairing!

4. You can’t fix everything.

It’s tempting, but your child needs to learn how to “adult.” That means solving problems, resolving conflict and dealing with the consequences of their choices. Some situations may require your counsel, but ultimately your student is responsible for fixing the problem. The sooner you realize this, the easier it will be to let go and allow them to grow up.

5. They will be exposed to underage drinking.

I thought, naively, that my daughter’s college would enforce this law. Unfortunately, I was wrong. She was offered alcohol her very first day of college. When she pledged a sorority, it got worse. Be ready for it and prepare your child to know how to respond. The peer pressure to drink in college can be intense. Have an open discussion about responsible drinking before your student leaves for college.

6. Don’t borrow more than you can repay after graduation.

I believed that a college wouldn’t let a student borrow more than they could repay. I was wrong. Your student can borrow the max in federal student loans and, with a co-signer, the max in private student loans to cover all the costs of higher education. This may sound wonderful now; the problem comes when your student graduates and can’t afford to repay the loans. Don’t let your student borrow more than they can afford to repay — use the student loan repayment calculators before signing on the bottom line.

You and your student will experience growing pains over the next four years.

But with those pains will also come times of great joy as you watch your once dependent child grow into an independent adult. Your relationship will evolve from being a constant caregiver to a supportive parent with confidence in your child's ability to make positive decisions and choices. Enjoy the journey because it will pass very quickly. Graduation will be here before you know it.

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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