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Finding Patience with Your New College Student — And Yourself

Jennifer Sullivan


I recently spoke with a college parent who confided in me her struggles and frustration with her son. “What did I do wrong?” she asked. “I've been rethinking all the decisions I made when my son was growing up. I know I did the best that I could but I still feel like I should have done something differently. Why is he struggling in college?”

It was hard to listen to this amazing woman and mother question herself and her actions. As she was sharing with me, I found myself thinking that I, too, had probably said the same words about myself as a mother. I’ve wondered if I made the best decisions for my daughters as they were growing up. I’ve doubted my choices and questioned if I was a good enough parent.

Why are we parents so hard on ourselves? How can we find kindness and patience with ourselves and our children?

In my book Sharing the Transition to College: Words of Advice for Diverse Learners and Their Families I offer suggestions based on real-world situations that I’ve seen in my work as a college transition specialist. New college parents are cautiously optimistic. They're hopeful that their high school graduate will make a seamless transition to college. Parents are holding their breath during the first few weeks and months of the fall semester as they wait for midterm and final grades to be posted as if their child’s grades are an indicator of how well they did, as parents, raising a new college student.

But if our student stumbles or makes a misstep, how do we respond? I suggest that we respond with patience — both for our student and for ourselves.

Missteps and mistakes are a normal part of your student’s journey to becoming independent. Supporting your children through these missteps is important, but equally important is supporting and caring for yourself. Sadly, the second part of this suggestion is often overlooked. Why? Because as parents we are so focused on fixing, helping and supporting our children that when the helping "moment" is over we feel that our work is done.

College parents need to care for the caregiver — themselves. How do we do this? By making time for self-care, not holding ourselves to an outside standard, and meeting our college student where they are.

Parent Self-Care

Parent self-care is important to a college parent’s mental health and to their relationships with family, friends and spouse or partner. The first year of college is a significant shift in many ways for both individuals and family dynamics. Recognizing the impact of the college transition on yourself and your family unit is important. Acknowledging how the transition is affecting you requires both honesty and courage.

A few questions to think about:

  • How has your college student’s transition affected you?
  • In what ways has the college transition affected you more positively than you thought it would?
  • In what ways has the college transition affected you more negatively than you thought it would?
  • How would you describe your relationship with your college student now?
  • Identify a positive quality of your relationship with your college student that makes you smile.
  • Identify a goal that you would like to move toward in the relationship with your college student.

After reflecting honestly on the questions above, the last crucial step toward self-care is taking action! Identify those activities in your life that energize you, refresh you, or give you peace. Do more of them!

Not Holding Ourselves to an Outside Standard

2020 has been a year of chaos and unpredictability. I haven’t felt like I’ve “had it all together” this year and I’m sure most families would agree. This year more than ever students are in uncharted territory. We're all unsure about what's around the corner.

Parents, we can’t compare our college students’ journey to anyone else because, well, no one else has experienced the spring, summer and fall that your teenagers have been through. Avoid looking around and comparing yourself or your child’s journey to someone else — their journey is truly unique and they, like all of us, are trying to manage one day at a time.

Meeting Our Children Where They Are

The best piece of advice I ever received was from an educator giving a presentation about working with diverse learning students. The presenter said that anyone working with or parenting children would be wise to eliminate the word "should" from their vocabulary. When we use the word "should," we automatically imply judgement. “My child is 18 years old. They should be able to wake themselves up to attend class” or “This is my second child going to college. I should know what to expect and have it together by now.”

Using language such as "should" suggests that where we are now is not the place we are meant to be. But what if where you are is exactly where you are meant to be? What if parents changed their thinking from “my student shouldn’t be struggling with this” to “my student is struggling with this. I will see how I can help without judgement.”

This is a difficult time that requires all of us to demonstrate flexibility and grace. Our college students are trying their best to cope with uncertainty and change — and we as parents are trying to do the same. By making time for self-care, not holding ourselves to an outside standard, and meeting our emerging adults where they are we can hopefully find patience and peace in the parenting process.

Jennifer Sullivan, M.S., has over 17 years experience in both higher education and K-12 schools as an academic advisor, instructor and former Director of Parent Programming on a college campus. Currently she is a private college coach/tutor supporting students with learning disabilities, autism and anxiety. Jennifer enjoys writing — and connecting with parents of college students! Visit her website: www.fastforwardcollegecoaching.com.

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