The transition to becoming a college parent isn’t sudden. You’ve been working on it through all of those months of SAT prep, college visits, essay writing, financial aid discussions, applications, acceptances and rejections, and finally, the DECISION. But as you begin to think about the reality of your new situation, it’s hard to know where to begin.
Let’s begin by thinking about who this new college student is, and what your role in this college experience might be.
Who is this College Student?
This college student is the son or daughter you’ve raised.
First and foremost, this student heading off on this grand and scary adventure called college, is the son or daughter you raised. Although it sometimes feels as though you may not know or understand his behavior, you’ve had many years to instill important values and teach life lessons. Your student will take to college with him the tool chest of lessons, experiences and values you’ve given him. Trust him. Trust the years you’ve spent with him.
This college student has a clean slate.
There is something wonderful about the adventure of beginning college. Your student is a young man or woman with an opportunity to have a clean slate and build a new life. Many of us might welcome the opportunity to have a fresh start. Your student may have spent many years in the same area, school, or neighborhood. He is known by everyone. His family may have connections in town, he may have siblings ahead or behind him, he may be known as an excellent student, an athlete, a loner, or a class leader. There is something safe in this knowledge, but also something restricting.
At college he will have a fresh start. He can re-create himself. This can be a wonderful, and an intimidating prospect. There’s no reputation to fall back on, but there’s also no history clouding your student’s opportunities. Some students thrive on the experience of this fresh start and some are taken by surprise. As parents, it is important for us to recognize that this is a stressful time. Encourage your student to take advantage of the clean slate that he has to invent the self he wants to be.
This college student is working on independence – and responsibility.
This college student is someone who will be working on achieving independence. This is one of the most thrilling aspects of the college experience for many students – and also one of the most frightening and difficult to navigate. Some students will struggle with their independence as they learn that along with the independence comes the need to be responsible for themselves.
Perhaps you have worked hard to help your student achieve the independence and personal responsibility that she will need in college, or perhaps she will have a lot to learn. As parents, it is important that we recognize the struggle our students may face. Don’t jump in to help too quickly. Encourage your student to try to solve problems for herself, understand when she doesn’t share as much with you as you might wish for, and support her when she falters.
This college student needs a refuge.
Finally, your student is someone who will need a home base to which he can return to recharge his batteries. He will need a place, and a family, where he is accepted unconditionally and which allow him down time. He will need a place where he doesn’t have to “reinvent” himself and where he can let his guard down.
When he calls, or comes home, be prepared for a range of possible scenarios. He may have lots to tell you. He may have nothing to say. He may want to spend his entire time with his friends, or he may want to do nothing but sleep. Home is the refuge. Be there for him, but trust him to take the lead. Be there for him, but recognize that your role may have changed since he was in high school. Be there for him, and enjoy getting to know him all over again.
What does this mean for parents?
This is a transitional time for everyone.
Your student is not the only one who is going through a transitional time. Sometimes we become so focused on the changes that are occurring for our student, we forget that changes will be occurring for us as well. Or perhaps we are all too well aware of the changes that will be taking place in our lives, and we need to put things in perspective.
Because your student may be feeling stress as he heads off to college, he may try your patience. It may help to recognize that your patience may be a bit shorter than usual because you are stressed as well. If this is your first child to go to college, you may be working hard to keep up with all of the necessary paperwork, and finances, and new terms, and necessary shopping and logistics. You may be wondering what life at home will be like without him there. If this is your last child to go to college, you will definitely be facing changes at home, and this can be both emotional and stressful.
Just as your child is now facing an opportunity for a new beginning, so are you. Recognize the possibilities. Don’t ignore or minimize the changes that will be taking place at home. Anticipate them. Embrace the new phase in your life and think about how you will deal with the changes.
Everyone is experiencing changing roles.
As your child leaves for college, your role changes. The parenting you do as a college parent will be different from what you have been doing as your child has moved through elementary school, middle school, and high school.
You will no longer be involved in the day to day activities and nuances of your child’s life. Your new role changes to that of coach and chief cheerleader. You move to the sidelines – giving suggestions, sometimes chiding, and sometimes encouraging – but you’re not on the field playing the game. By recognizing that your role is still crucial, but is now different, and helping your child to realize it, you will make the transition to college easier for both of you.
You still provide the necessary safe haven.
One role as parent will never change. That is to provide the unconditional love and safe haven that your child will need, perhaps now more than ever. He needs to know that he can spread his wings, try out his new independence and life, and that you will be there when he needs you. How you will be there may vary. Sometimes you will be there to congratulate him and celebrate with him, sometimes you will need to encourage him, sometimes you’ll be expressing displeasure or even fear, and sometimes you’ll just need to help him pick up the pieces and figure out how to go on. But he will know that you are there – no matter what – and that will make the difference.
Your new adventure begins.
Being the parent of a college student can be a difficult but vitally important job. For many of us, because it is a new job description, there is a learning curve. There may be new rules, new tasks, and new expectations. Our involvement in our college student’s life is crucial, but our mode of operation may need to be modified. Embracing the change, accepting the challenge, and enjoying the adventure, will make the transition smoother and more rewarding for everyone.