Things happen. As college students work at their increasing independence and responsibility, as they learn that some of the choices that they are making are good choices and others are not, as they strive to find balance, as they struggle to accept consequences for their actions, things happen. Some of these things are good things, affirming that your student is growing and maturing and making wise decisions. Some of these things are not as positive, and some may have serious consequences. Some students have poor or even failing grades, some face college judicial or even legal consequences, some face health issues, some face social problems, some face serious money issues, and some simply feel that they’ve made all of the wrong choices at this point in their life.
Whatever may be happening for your college student, it may be magnified at the midpoint in a semester. The reality of midterm grades may be a wake-up call. The urgency of the remaining few weeks may hit. The immediacy of a break or holiday at home with family may dawn. The tensions are increasing as the semester progresses.
No matter what your college student may be experiencing or feeling right now, the second thing that many students worry about may be “How will I tell my parents?” As parents, we like to think that our college students can talk to us about whatever may be bothering them. However, for many students, concern about family reactions to college difficulties may be adding to an already difficult time. This may be especially true for families that are, or have been, close. Our college students don’t want to disappoint us. They don’t want to let us down. They don’t want to fail at their new found independence.
One of the most important things that you can do for your college student, especially at the midterm “moment of truth” may be to keep all channels of communication open. Even before you have any hint of possible trouble, set the stage for your student being able to talk openly with you.
Think about your listening skills. Listen carefully to whatever your student may tell you, and listen between the lines. Don’t interrogate your student, but ask some questions that show that you are hearing what they are saying. Your student may be offering some hints, hoping that you will pick up on them. They will be listening carefully too, right now, for your attitude about whatever they are telling you. Your student may take their cues from you about how much they are willing to share.
If your student shares something with you that disappoints you, be honest. Let them know that you are sad, or angry, or worried, or fearful, but don’t scold. If your student is having trouble, the last thing they need to hear right now is a lecture. They have probably already given themselves that same lecture. Be honest in sharing your feelings, but then move on to how your student can address the problem.
Your student is the one who needs to deal with the problem, but you can help them think through options. Ask them if the problem is fixable. Ask whether they want to fix the problem. (If they say no, then a different conversation about whether college is the right choice right now may be needed.) Ask your student who they need to talk to at school. Ask what they can change at this point. Don’t give your student ultimatums or provide solutions. Help them to think through how they will address the problem and take control. This is part of your student’s growing independence. Ask what you can do to help, but remind them that they needs to take responsibility. Although at some level your student might like you to take charge, they will be pleased that you are treating them as the adult that they want to be.
Let your student know that you are there to support them as they deal with the issue. It is fair to express your feelings, thoughts, opinions and even limits; however your student then needs to make their own decisions. It may not be easy to let them know that they have your support – no matter what happens – but this will allow your student to continue to be open and honest with you as they address future issues. Your student will be looking to you for your attitude, not only about the area of concern, but also about their ability to handle this. What they may need more than anything right now is simply your support – not necessarily of their actions or choices up to this point, but of them as a person.
Let your student know clearly what you mean by support. This does not mean that you will continue to endorse poor choices. You may need to have an honest conversation about limits. Will you continue to pay tuition if they continue to fail most of their classes? Will you insist that they live at home while they learn to balance their time and priorities? Will they need to pay their own rent if they insist on living off campus? Do they need to get a job to pay for credit card charges? Remember that support does not necessarily mean acceptance of poor choices or actions. It does mean recognition of your student’s need to make decisions about their life.
Your college student needs to know that you will be there. If your student is in trouble – of any kind – they will worry about how to tell you. But your student needs to know that they can tell you and that, while you may not approve, you will be there with your support – of them, not necessarily of their actions or choices. Set the tone in all of your conversations. Listen. Respect Your student’s need to make their own choices (even if you don’t approve of them). Share your feelings honestly. You will be laying the foundation for good communication through many life situations for years to come.