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Proactive vs. Reactive College Parenting

Jennifer Sullivan


“I believe that everyone chooses how to approach life. If you’re proactive, you focus on preparing. If you’re reactive, you end up focusing on repairing.” – John C. Maxwell

In preparation for sending our high schoolers off to college, parents spend their student's senior year and summer after graduation planning, packing and getting ready for the physical move-in day.

We think about all of the "things" our new college student might need — but rarely do we prepare ourselves for the role of becoming a new college parent. The families I coach share with me that they are so focused on preparing their child for college success that they forget to focus on themselves.

In my one-on-one work with families of new college students, I have found that parents who experience the most peace of mind (if there is truly such a thing when you're a parent!) are those who anticipate their child’s achievements and new struggles and envision how they as parents will respond. I call this proactive parenting and have seen how the proactive parenting mindset can positively impact the perspective of new college parents.

What is Proactive Parenting?

The transition from high school student to new college student is one that educators, professionals and parents know is a big leap. Many books have been written on the topic and offer resources, tools and tips for parents.

My new book, Sharing the Transition to College: Words of Advice for Diverse Learners and Their Families, offers advice for college parents but adds something new — reflective prompts that ask parents to consider the type of parent they want to be. I encourage parents to think about the type of parenting style they want to have before becoming a new college parent. I call this proactive parenting.

Proactive parenting is anticipating the achievements and struggles of your college student and envisioning how you will respond before the experience happens. This technique is similar to what others might call visualization. Visualization is a technique often used by top athletes and successful leaders. Visioning allows us to imagine how we will react to a situation in the future, rehearsing for when it actually happens.

Proactive vs. Reactive Parenting

As a parent myself, I admit that I'm often caught off guard by the choices of my teenage daughters. When I'm surprised, I know that my reaction will probably be one of emotion rather than logic. This is the opposite of proactive parenting — it's reactive parenting.

I don’t like the way it feels to be a reactive parent. Reactive parenting is like fighting a fire instead of preventing a fire. My unanticipated reactions are usually reactions that I feel guilty about later.

Of course, not all situations can be prevented or predicted. Anomalies will happen and we deal with them the best we can. However, proactive parenting allows me to think with logic and make a plan instead of reacting with emotion.

What are the Advantages of Proactive Parenting?

This style of parenting allows new college parents to react with grace and patience when their teenager struggles in college. In my book, I offer real-world scenarios that ask parents to reflect on how they would react. If your initial reaction to these scenarios is anger, you’re not alone! But I encourage you to challenge yourself to react differently.

Scenario 1: Imagine your daughter is posting pictures on social media that show her hanging out with groups of friends late at night and not wearing a mask. How would you respond?

Scenario 2: Your new college student receives midterm grades that indicate they have some class absences and missing assignments. How would you respond?

Scenario 3: Your student uses Uber Eats to arrange food delivery to their residence hall almost every night. You receive a credit card bill of $600 in food purchases. You call your college freshman who tells you that the food purchases weren't just for them but for other students on their residence hall floor who promised to pay them back but haven’t.

Thinking about these scenarios before they happen, choosing your reaction in advance, and thinking about your plan with logic instead of emotion can help you get closer to the kind of parent you want to be.

Just when you think you have this parenting thing figured out, your child will leave high school and give you a completely new set of circumstances in which to parent and respond. I encourage you to meet the new college environment prepared and with confidence. How to do this? By being a proactive parent.

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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