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Becoming a College Parent in 7 (Not So Easy) Steps

Suzanne Shaffer

If you're the parent of a teen starting college soon, you know changes are coming. This may be the first time your student manages their own schedule, makes independent financial decisions, or grapples with laundry. They will be caught between feeling competent to handle all their new responsibilities and still needing you.

Your relationship with your student will change, too. Although they will manage many decisions and tasks on their own, they'll still need your support and advice as they navigate college and young adulthood.

According to Kristen Gray, associate dean for health and counseling at Hope College in Michigan, the right kind of parental involvement can help students adjust to college. “There's a real difference there between coddling a student and getting the student’s brain to develop some strategies, then helping the students evaluate those strategies.”

Finding that balance is the parent’s responsibility — discovering what works best for your child and implementing those strategies.

The good news is that many students see their relationship with their parents improving after they start college. Tisha Duncan, an education professor at Meredith College in North Carolina who studies emerging adulthood, suggests that this change “could be indicative of a shift in how young adults view the role of the parent as one of confidant and adviser rather than authoritarian.”

Here are seven suggestions to help you transition to your new role.

1. Adjust Your Expectations

Don’t lower your expectations — adjust them. College academics are more rigorous than high school. If your student was an A student in high school, it won’t necessarily translate into A’s in college. They are in a different environment surrounded by other students who also excelled. The work is more difficult, and their grades could drop to B’s and C’s, especially freshman year. An over-achiever in high school may have difficulty accepting a B in college.

Your goal is to let them know you only expect them to do their best. The stress of disappointing a parent can add to your student’s anxieties even though they may never say a word. A parent’s words of reassurance and acceptance can relieve that stress.

2. Allow Them to Make Mistakes

College is a place for exploration and experimentation, both academically and socially. Freedom opens the door for your student to make some mistakes and some poor choices. You should expect them to test boundaries, which sometimes leads to negative consequences. Learning from mistakes is part of growing up and becoming independent.

At the same time, pay attention to any drastic changes in behavior or drop in grades. Act accordingly and help them adjust and guide them to make better choices.

3. Give Them Space

Technology makes it easy to keep tabs on our children. Tracking apps are great when used for safety, but as with any convenience, they can be misused.

My daughter had a friend in college whose parent hacked into the security cameras on campus to make sure she went to class every day. While he may have been motivated by a concern for his daughter’s academic success, needless to say it caused significant tension in their relationship!

Your student deserves time, space, and privacy as they adjust to college life. They may struggle with independence, but that's normal. You can assure them you're there if they need you and schedule check-ins that work for both of you.

4. Be a Coach Rather than a Problem Solver

Your student will be processing tons of information and making decisions every day. It’s likely you will hear from them regarding any number of problems. In fact, the only time you hear from them might be when they have a problem!

When you get those late night or panic calls, you should be a good listener first and then guide them to solve their own problem.

There are campus resources available for just about every foreseeable problem your student will encounter. Encourage them to take the initiative and use these resources. Avoid stepping in and solving the problem yourself.

5. Stay Away While They Settle In

It’s in your student’s best interest that you don’t visit too often. If they attend a college close to home, avoid dropping in unannounced and avoid frequent visits.

They need time to adjust to their new life and settle in with their friends. Encouraging them or allowing them to come home every weekend is not in their best interest either. Staying on campus gives them the chance to adapt and become a part of their campus community.

A good rule of thumb is to make plans to attend fall Parent and Family Weekend. Most students look forward to this event and it helps with the homesickness that can be common during the first semester. Waiting until then to visit gives your student some time to be on their own.

6. Don’t Forget Care Packages

When my daughter was in college, she (and her roommates) looked forward to my frequent care packages. I sent cookies and popcorn, Christmas decorations for the holidays, and treats for exam time to remind her that I was thinking of her.

You did these special things for them when they were at home, and they need them all throughout college. Care packages replace the notes in the lunch boxes and the occasional treats you found for them while shopping.

It’s not what’s in the package that matters; it’s the unconditional love they feel when they receive them from you.

7. Encourage Them to Share What They Learn With You

As you listen to their stories, encourage them to share what they're learning in their classes and from other students. Ask about the content of their classes rather than focusing on their grades. Encourage them to tell you about new ideas they've encountered, and intellectual passions that have been kindled during their first few months of college. This helps both you and your student shift to a different relationship which includes the free exchange of ideas and enthusiasms.

Becoming the parent of a college student certainly has its challenges, as does transitioning into adulthood for your student. This is simply another phase in your child’s development and in your lifelong parent-child relationship. As long you embrace your role as advisor rather authoritarian, you can prepare your college student for full-fledged adulthood while improving your bond with them at the same time.

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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