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 their behavior, you’ve had many years to instill important values and teach life lessons. Your student will take to college the tool chest of lessons, experiences and values you’ve given them. Trust your student. Trust the years you’ve spent with them and the lessons you’ve taught.
This college student has a clean slate.
There is something wonderful about the adventure of beginning college. Your student is a young person 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. Everyone knows them. Your family may have connections in town, your student may have siblings ahead or behind them, they 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 your student will have a fresh start. They will have an opportunity for a re-creation of who they are and who they want to be 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 they will have to invent the self they want 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 they will need in college, or perhaps they 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 on their own, try to understand when your student doesn’t share as much with you as you might wish, and support them when they falter.
This college student needs a refuge.
Finally, your student is someone who will need a home base to which they can return to recharge their batteries. Your student will need a place, and a family, where they are accepted unconditionally and which allow them down time. Your student will need a place where they don’t have to work at “reinvention” and where they can let their guard down.
When your student calls, or comes home, be prepared for a range of possible scenarios. They may have lots to tell you. They may have nothing to say. Your student may want to spend their entire time with his friends, or they may want to do nothing but sleep. Home is the refuge. Be there, but trust your student to take the lead. Be there, but recognize that your role may have changed since your student was in high school – even if that was only a few days or weeks ago. Be there, and enjoy getting to know your student 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 our world in perspective again.
Because your student may be feeling stress as they head off to college, they may try your patience. This may be a difficult summer. 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 your student part of your day to day life. 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 and prepare for it, you will make the transition to college easier for both of you.
You still provide the necessary safe haven.
One core 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. Your student needs to know that they can spread their wings, try out new independence and life, and that you will be there when they need you. How you will be there may vary. Sometimes you will be there to congratulate and celebrate, sometimes you will need to encourage, sometimes you’ll be expressing displeasure or even fear, and sometimes you’ll just need to help pick up the pieces and figure out how to go on. But your student 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.