College is an exciting and challenging time for students and parents alike.
For students, it’s a time filled with hope for the future, opportunities to change and grow, to make new friends, and transition into adulthood. For parents, sending a child to college is a time to be proud of all the hard work that has prepared them to meet the challenges that lay ahead. Also, parents and family undergo their own transitions as the absence of the student is a daily reminder that the family is now different. In addition, communication between the student and individual family members is altered and as parents are learning to adapt to these changes, they are often called upon to help their student from a distance to navigate his or her challenges.
After your child has chosen a college, consider planning another visit to the school to talk with advisors, RAs, student counseling and other resources about their services and availability.
- Transition Support – Many schools offer programs during orientation and freshmen year to help students acclimate to college and support them during the emotional transition. Find out what programs prospective schools offer to help students thrive on campus.
- Residential Life— Residential Advisors (RAs) are often a source of support and advice during your first year at school. Find out more about who they are, how they were trained and how they will support you.
- Counseling — Should you need help, find out what resources are available to help with stress management or problems like depression. Does the school provide psychological counseling or support groups? What are the student/provider ratios and counseling center hours? Does the center deal primarily with day-to-day college stressors like time management, relationship issues or sleep difficulties, or is it resourced to address more serious concerns including anxiety, ADHD, depression and substance abuse?
For more great information on transitioning to college, please check out Set to Go.
Don’t Tell Me What To Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years, written by Helen E. Johnson & Christine Schelhas-Miller
When children leave for college, many parents feel uncertain about their shifting roles. By emphasizing the importance of being a mentor to your college student, this book shows parents how to influence their college student while still supporting their independence.
Empty Nest…Full Heart: the Journey from Home to College, written by Andrea Van Steenhouse
The author chronicles the tumultuous journey from the senior year of high school, through the challenging summer, to the first year of college for students.
Let the Journey Begin: A Parent’s Monthly Guide to the College Experience, written by Jacqueline MacKay & Wanda Ingram
As you and your first-year college student begin the school year, many questions may arise. This resource will be one opportunity to learn how to get answers to your questions.
Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years, written by Karen Levin Coburn & Madge Lawrence Treeger
This book leads parents through the period of transition that their student experiences between the junior year of high school and college graduation. The authors explain how to distinguish normal development stages from problems that may require parental or professional intervention.
When Kids Go to College: A Parents Guide to Changing Relationships, written by Barbara M. Newman & Philip Newman
This practical guide will answer that important question and tell you how to make the most of the college years.
You’re On Your Own (but I’m here if you need me), Marjorie Savage, Fireside Books
Sections of this page are adapted from similar information provided by Loyola College in Maryland, University of Michigan, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Central Michigan University and University of Florida.
College can be a stressful time for students as they transition into a new level of daily responsibility for their lives. They can get overwhelmed having to schedule time for classes, homework, and domestic chores, learning to live with a roommate, managing finances, dealing with people from different cultures and viewpoints, and building friendships and romantic relationships. With no one looking over their shoulder or reminding them of what they “ought or ought not” do, students may experience a new found freedom and relief on one hand, and be overwhelmed with a feeling of unorganized chaos on the other. Many are confronted with stress and some have moments wondering if they can handle it. This is normal!
As a supportive parent, you can provide the steadiness they need by listening to their concerns while encouraging them to work through their own problems. You can help them sort through their thoughts and emotions so they can make good decisions. Be an advisor, (when they ask) but respect their new decision making responsibilities. As a parent, sometimes this is difficult. You are highly invested in this endeavor! You may worry that if you don’t handle whatever is going on, no one will. Actually, it is often the case that when parents step back, the student will begin to assume more responsibility. Until such time, it is easy for them to ignore problems, knowing that you’re doing the worrying for them.
Write your student cards and letters. Send packages. They love it. Be okay with it if they don’t write back. The first few months are especially busy for students as they are making new friends and adjusting to the rigorous demands that college places on them. Your student will certainly be happy to get a letter in his or her mailbox catching him up on what’s going on at home and letting him/her know they’re missed.
The first few visits home can be challenging for parents and students alike. While your student has been immersed in a completely new culture, other family members have continued to live in their established style, with the same rules and expectations. Don’t be surprised about “curfew confusion.” This is often a source of struggle for families. They have been living away from home with no assigned time to return at night. While each family situation is different, don’t let a battle ensue that ruins the visit. Instead, talk openly and honestly with your student to arrive at an understanding and compromise that honors everyone. When students understand your worry and inability to sleep when they remain out late, they most often will respect your reasonable requests. Establish a game plan together!
Academics and expectations in college are quite different from high school. Many straight A and talented students now find themselves in a pool of people who are also high achievers. Encourage them not to compare themselves with others, but to be the very best that they can be. If grades slip a little first semester, remind your student that the campus has many resources available to and designed intentionally for them to use. They are not alone. The members of the university team want them to succeed.
You have worked for almost twenty years to arrive at this day! While the focus of attention remains on your student’s transition, the truth is you’re going to have some of your own transitioning to do. What can you do to continue to support your student and also take care of yourself? Below are a few helpful hints.
Recognize that feelings of ambivalence about your student’s leaving home are normal.
For most families, particularly those sending a first child off to college, the feelings of separation can be powerful. It is normal to miss them, but to also enjoy their absence. Remember this can be a particularly difficult time for younger children too as they have to adjust to their big brother or sister being away. They will experience a sense of loss even if their relationship with their sibling was rocky at times.
Allow yourself to feel whatever emotions come up.
It is understandable that you might feel sad, guilty, relieved, apprehensive, or any other number of emotions, while your child is getting ready to go to college. A healthy approach is to talk about them – with your family, friends, clergy, or whoever is a source of support for you. Encourage any children still at home to share their feelings too. Try to keep a balance, however. Too much emotion, too often can lead to your new college student feeling guilty for leaving.
Make overall wellness a goal for yourself.
Especially during stressful times, it helps to get enough sleep, regularly eat healthy, and get adequate exercise. With less laundry to do, you now can make time to do some things that you are especially interested in. When you are feeling good, you are more likely to have the energy to help your students and be a good role model.
Change, but keep some things the same.
When you get that burst of energy to redecorate, resist the urge to convert your college student’s room into your new exercise suite. When your student comes home to visit, he or she still needs the comfort of having his or her own space in the house and knowing he or she belongs. Go ahead and put the exercise equipment in the living room. It’ll remind you to workout!
Find a new creative outlet for yourself.
Particularly for parents who now find themselves with no more children in the house: Have you ever wanted to write a book? Learn to fly-fish? Make a quilt? Volunteer in your community? Assume a new project or responsibility at work? Travel? Get your own bicycle and ride all over town? Make a list of all the things you intended to do while your child was growing up, but never had the time to do. Now is your chance!
By the time a student goes to college, most parents have already been a part of the profound changes that can occur in the teenage years. Most parents report that the experience of sending a student to college is associated with eagerness, worries, confusion, and hope. By the time the student actually takes that first step, some evidence of changes are already visible. The student becomes more independent, gains skills and confidence in new areas, and has experiences with a larger diversity of peer relationships. Ideally, the college years are a time when a student continues to mature and gain the knowledge necessary to lead a successful life. However, it can be very difficult to know what that might mean for you as a parent. Here are some examples of what you might go through:
Help!”/ “Don’t tell me what to do!”
One difficult part of adolescence in these times is confusion about when to be independent and when to rely on others. Unfortunately, the student might not even know that they are going through this confusion. It can be frustrating for a parent to go through this part of the growth process with their students, not knowing how to be helpful and receiving messages which are unclear or incomplete. In their confusion, the student might add to the uncertainty by changing rapidly – rejecting your help on Tuesday and actively seeking it on Wednesday. We’ve often heard about parents in great distress because their student predicted a poor outcome on an exam, but forgot to provide an update when the results were better than expected. Not surprisingly, the parent will have a very difficult time knowing when to help, when to step back, and/or how much to worry. Even worse, a parent might feel that it is time to help, but it can be very difficult to know what is the most helpful thing to do. Most of the time, the best thing for a parent to do is provide a steady, supportive emotional “home base” while recognizing that there will be ups and downs in students’ needs and expectations.
Try to follow the message that you received from your student as much as possible, and encourage them to work through a problem. While staying in contact with their experience of the difficulty, you can provide a lot of assistance as a person who believes in your student and is willing to be responsive to your student. You can go far as their “life coach” by helping them balance their thoughts and emotions to make their best decisions. Your actions will reinforce your words by letting them know that you respect their right to make a decision and that you will serve as an advisor when asked. We generally assume that students will make the best decisions possible in such an emotional context.
Another way to bolster the skills of your student is to look for opportunities to notice and appreciate the positive ways that they express their emerging adulthood. It means more than you might guess to a student for their family to recognize the progress they’re making and to be reminded that the success of the students is the success of the family. You might need to clarify with your student what they mean when they give you confusing messages, but this clarification is greatly assisted by a context of loving support.
This is my decision.”
It is completely natural for a parent to feel a high level of investment in their student’s decisions. Problems can arise, however, when parents are invested in decisions in a different way than the student, with different priorities than the student, or in different directions than the student. If it seems that the student is not assuming responsibility in a particular area, it can be very anxiety provoking or objectionable for the parent to leave the responsibility to the student. The paradox in this situation is that students often refrain from taking responsibility until parents step back. For a lot of reasons, this dilemma is played out in families very often, and good intentions coming from loving sentiments might not lead in the desired direction.
It is very uncomfortable, and even feels unnatural, for a parent to allow their student to feel the discomfort of emerging adult responsibilities. In addition, there is really no guarantee that students will assume responsibility or that they will make the same decision as you would. It is really easy to see how parents can lose sleep in thinking about decisions the student makes with which they disagree, that might not seem like the best decisions, or feel like the student is not taking responsibility at all.
In our experience, it is impossible to walk away and pretend to be disinterested, and that is not really honest in most cases. At the same time, it seldom seems productive for the student to take on all of the frustration of the parent. It is our suggestion that you provide clear messages about your concern that are supportive of the student. Let them know that your messages are targeted at the concerns that the student has rather than specific to you as the parent. Let the student now that you are concerned, and let the student know that they must sort this out. It’s even okay to tell the student that you don’t know what to do, but you are ready and willing to learn with them. Be attentive to opportunities for coaching, letting the student know that you are ready for coaching when the timing is right.Encourage them to help you know the nature of the support that they need, and trust their request. By moving too quickly, you might make it more difficult for the student to seek you when the time is right for them.
College is different than I thought it would be.”
For most students, arriving on campus for the first time brings many surprises. Even for people who have been in Winchester before, there’s a lot to discover about what college and life are about. Often people discover that a certain academic major has surprises in it or leads to other possibilities that were not anticipated. Part of the newness of the college experience might be the growing awareness that certain job roles which were being considered by the student are different than what was thought. Sometimes the surprises can even be within the student. They might find out that their interests or priorities have changed.
A big part of this change can be how to adapt to the new environment. At the most basic level, it might mean learning how to study, how much, and how often to study. Academic expectations are more rigorous than in high school. Students accustomed to receiving “A’s” and “B’s” have to work much harder to earn the top grades in college. They also have to figure out when they should be studying and how to motivate themselves to do so. Ultimately, they learn when to ask for help and when to resolve issues on their own. Coming face-to-face with new challenges is an important and usually beneficial part of the college experience. What often makes a difference between the challenges being beneficial or otherwise is the use of appropriate support. So, finding the best support in dealing with these challenges is very important. Often, students can get support from peers who approach their college experience in a positive way. Trained peer helpers (residence life staff and other trained peer helpers on campus) can also be valuable. The university has many other resources to address student needs. These resources include support for learning, health, career, and other personal concerns.
Like anyone experimenting with early independence, a student might assume that being independent means going through things without assistance. Parents can do a lot for their student by listening to them and asking questions. These questions can be a way to help a student explore and evaluate resources that promote and reflect maturity – the student can learn that getting appropriate help and getting advice do not detract from their autonomy or growth as an adult. At the same time, parents and other family members can serve key roles in providing the support needed. On many occasions, we have told parents that it might be a good idea to let their student know that the party has spoken with us and found our assistance to be useful.
Students often tell us how important it was that their parents believed in them and provided active support as the student made the effort to solve problems on their own. It is easy for parents to underestimate this fact. It is important to recall that parents continue to provide support for their student as a move beyond college years. The support provided also contributes to the loving framework that can become a cherished foundation for the adult relationship that may be celebrated for years.
The first visit home from college can bring new perspectives. These new perspectives can be interesting ones for all members of the family. The student might return home and think that the ‘new person’ who has emerged will be well-recognized and appreciated by the persons who knew them before. At the same time, parents and/or siblings might expect the student to be very much the same as before and that the rules and standards for the household will be experienced just as they were before the departure of the student.
Parents can expect that their views will differ from those held by students during those first visits home. Knowing this in advance, the student and the family can seek a compromise that considers both the needs of the original family and the growing independence of the student. It can be helpful in this situation for both the student and the family to keep the goal of overall family harmony and health as a priority so that everyone can begin the discussions in a spirit of respect and flexibility. There are a few differences between family members that are worth discarding the overall well-being of the family.
If your student is commuting to school from home, you can do a lot for their growth to help them evolve into new roles in the family system. Changes in independence and responsibility can be discussed and implemented in ways that provide new experiences for the student while building trust and positive feelings for everyone in the home.
What about counseling?
Sometimes a student comes to the university having already received counseling at home. Others may not have previous counseling experience but might have a difficult time in making the transition to college. In either of these circumstances, students and parents are encouraged to contact Counseling Services to get information about the best options available to them. Our staff is available to provide consultative services, short-term counseling services and community resources.
Why might counseling be suggested to a student?
There are many reasons why a person may seek counseling services. These range from a desire to solve a long-standing problem to wanting to enhance their personal growth. In order to address the personal, educational and career concerns of the students, the Counseling Center offers both group and short-term individual counseling. Common concerns that are discussed in counseling include: roommate and other interpersonal relationship conflicts, anxiety and stress management, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and family concerns. Students may also receive outside referrals to psychiatric services if medication is considered essential to the treatment of their concerns.
Here are some of the common instances when counseling might be recommended to a student:
- Fundamental or traumatic changes in personal relationships, such as death of a family member or friend, divorce or separation in the family, etc.
- Significant changes in mood or behavior, such as withdrawal from others, asocial activity (e.g., lying, stealing) spells of unexplained crying or outbursts of anger, or unusual agitation.
- References to suicide – since it is difficult to distinguish between serious threats or passing idle thoughts of suicide, judgment about the seriousness of a situation is best made in consultation with a psychologist or psychiatrist.
- Anxiety and depression – these are two of the more common symptoms which can significantly impair a student’s functioning.
- Psychosomatic symptoms – concerns such as tension headaches, loss of appetite or excessive eating, insomnia or excessive sleeping or chronic stomach distress, etc.
- Alcohol and drug abuse – evidence of excessive drinking, drug abuse or drug dependence is very often indicative of psychological problems.
- Career choice concerns – often these concerns reflect the student’s struggle to understand him/herself and the world of work. Sometimes it reflects a problem with decision-making in general.
- Concern about academics – such as contemplating dropping out of school, worrying about possible academic failure, or considering a transfer to another school
What about confidentiality?
Counseling often involves the disclosure of sensitive personal information. Any information a student shares with the Counseling Center staff is protected by professional ethics and state law. As such, information about the counseling a student receives is not released, except upon a student’s written permission, in circumstances which would result in clear danger to the student or others, or as may be required by law.
It is understandable that you may wish to be involved when your student seeks counseling, but the confidentiality issues described above do not permit such involvement without the consent of the student. Often, the best source of information for parents about the counseling process is the student. Beyond that, if more information is desired, the student must sign a written release specifically permitting us to communicate with you. While it is not legal or ethical for the Counseling Center to provide parents with information that a student reveals in counseling, parents are welcome to call our office at 540-665-4530 and provide us with feedback or share your concerns about your student.
We hope these ideas and suggestions will be helpful to you in dealing with some of the difficulties parents experience when your student goes to college. The first year at Shenandoah is a tremendously exciting time, both for students and their families, and we hope and trust that you and student will have a rewarding year!