Why College Parenting Begins in High School

Thinking about and preparing for college begin earlier and earlier for most students. There are countless books, websites, programs, lectures and consulting services offered to help students as they begin their college preparation and admission journey. These services help students decide what high school classes to take, how to prepare for the SAT or ACT, how to select colleges and conduct college visits, how to finance an education and acquire loans. There are lists and lists and lists available telling them what to bring to college and how to furnish the ultimate dorm room.

The journey to becoming a college parent can be more mysterious. Many of us guide and support our student through the admission process, and we assume we’ll become a college parent once we drop our student off at Move-in Day. But if we wait until our student begins college to begin “college parenting,” we’re late to the game.

It’s a natural misunderstanding. Much of the focus during high school is on getting into college. However, your focus on “college parenting” includes helping your student focus on preparing to thrive in college in addition to getting into college.

If you begin to practice college parenting early in your student’s college prep journey, you can help your student begin to practice becoming a successful college student.

What do we mean by “college parenting?”

Becoming a college parent is a new role for most parents. Yes, technically it means having a child in college. But donning the role earlier helps everyone.

Being a “college parent” means taking a new, sideline role and moving from a caretaking role to a coaching role.

It means supporting your student by supporting their autonomy and independence.

It doesn’t mean letting go, but it does mean holding on differently.

It means being a source of emotional support, giving advice but letting your student choose to ignore it, and reminding your student – and yourself – that there is a line between your student’s issues and yours.

This might all sound scary. This new role is not an easy one, and it takes time to grow into it. Parenting college students successfully means being comfortable in this new role as you prepare your student for their new role as well.

Why now? My student isn’t even in college yet!

College success doesn’t just happen. It takes work and preparation. And success doesn’t depend on knowing one big secret thing. It relies on a host of factors. Your journey as a college parent begins while your student is still in high school as you help move them toward the success that both you and they hope for.

The transition to college is hard, but it is not an isolated incident or moment. Moving on to college is part of a trajectory that your student has already begun, perhaps years earlier. You can help your student build a bridge between their current lived experiences and their new life at college.

There are a lot of advantages to beginning this bridge-building now:

  • This is the time for you to reflect on all that you’ve already taught your student, all of the values you’ve instilled, and to think about what you still want to do. This takes time. Do it while you still can.
  • Experimenting with new skills and new approaches can mean some failures. Provide a safe space for your student to fail then help them pick up and learn from these “teaching moments.”
  • You’ll have time for plenty of conversations, discussions and questions over time. Don’t rush the process.
  • You’ll have the opportunity to be an intentional role model for your student, showing them how you handle stress, mistakes, challenges, balance. (Of course, you’ve always been a role model, but this is a good time to be intentional and focused about it.)
  • You can use this time to help your student think beyond admission to the reality of college life. This might be something you explore together.
  • This time can provide the opportunity to get to know your student even better – and in new ways – as you talk about their goals, dreams and potential fears.
  • You will feel more comfortable and confident sending your student off if you know they are prepared and ready to handle their life at college.

How do I do this? What do I focus on?

Your role as parent is not to prepare your student academically for college, of course. Hopefully, your student’s school will do that. Your role is not about admission and getting them into college, that is your student’s job (although you might help guide them through this process.)

Your job is to help them think about who they are, what they want from their college years, and how they can feel in control of their journey. Success doesn’t just happen. It is the culmination of dozens of baby steps and growth over time. And it isn’t necessary to have attended college yourself in order to help your student prepare. Life skills are acquired through living. Sharing what you know and have learned and experienced, even if you’ve learned it through your struggles and mistakes, will help your student know better what to expect and how to handle it.

  • Help your student begin to take responsibility for their own life and actions.
  • Work with them on time management and planning. This takes practice.
  • Help them learn to advocate for themselves.
  • Help them think about how to write a professional email, how to make important phone calls, how to greet new people and network.
  • Help your student think about their financial literacy and learn to manage a budget.
  • Help your student recognize their strengths and learn to build on them, and recognize their challenges and learn to address them.

(Check out our E-book 60 Practical Tips for Using the High School Years to Prepare for College Success for practical suggestions on how to address these goals.)

How do I prepare myself for this new role?

Just as your student needs to work on assuming their new role, you do as well. This may take baby steps for you, too. Moving to the college parenting role may require developing a new mindset and new habits. Beginning now will mean you are more comfortable in your new role when your student actually begins college.

Practice trust and letting go. This may not be easy, so begin slowly if necessary. The more you help your student prepare for their role, the more comfortable you will be with trusting them and letting them manage themselves.

Once your student has been accepted to a school, work at learning all that you can about it. This will not only help you get excited for your student, but help you be more familiar with the place they will be spending the next several years. You are not sending your student off to a mysterious, unknown, black hole. You will be more comfortable the more you know, and you’ll be better able to steer your student toward the resources and support they may need.

Becoming a college parent can also mean finding your own support group. Evaluate your friendships. Who are going to be “your people?” Who is going to support you? Who will be there for you? Find the positive, helpful, supportive, good listeners whose advice you respect. Build those relationships now so you are ready.

It’s a journey.

Your student is on a journey – and you are along for the ride. Your student needs to be the driver, but your coaching matters. The high school years provide a host of experiences, conversations, and “teaching moments.” Embrace the time. Trust your student to get it right, but know they will make mistakes. Help them learn from those mistakes (big and small) and know that they WILL learn along the way – and so will you. You’ll be there – on the sidelines – no matter what.

Related Articles:

Your Role as College Parent: Sideline Coach

College Parents Can Help Students Understand the Differences Between High School and College

Partnering with Your Student’s High School for College Success

Soft Skills, Strong Success: Fifteen Skills for College Readiness

Don’t forget to check out our e-book – 60 Practical Tips for Using the High School Years to Prepare for College Success. This guide is not about getting in to college. It is about how to work now to help your student succeed once they get to college. Open the door and get the conversations started!

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