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Letting go: Tips for parents of new college students

After 18 years of parenting, it can be hard to let go. Here is a sneak peek at the challenges of the transition ahead and advice to prepare right now.

By Karen Levin Coburn , Madge Lawrence Treeger

The emotional roller coaster

Recognize this is a time of ambivalence for all parents.

The excitement and joy about opportunities awaiting your child are mixed with the waves of nostalgia and a sense of loss. Talk with other parents who are going through the same thing.

Recognize your child's conflicting emotions.

Your child, like you, is being pulled between past, present and future ... one day exclaiming "leave me alone; I'm 18 years old. I'm independent" and the next complaining "you're never around when I need you." Your child's ups and downs are a sign of the ambivalence of this transitional time.

Take comfort in the knowledge that part of you is going with your child.

The foundation you have provided over the past 18 years will accompany your child across the miles and throughout the years.

Don't tell your child "These are the best years of your life."

No one is happy all the time between the ages of 18 and 22, and when a student is homesick or overtired from studying all night, it's not reassuring to have parents imply that this is as good as it gets!

Enjoy this time of celebration.

Try not to focus so much on the upcoming departure that you might miss the full impact of the senior year festivities and the joy of summer days ahead.

The summer before

Be prepared to see less of your child this summer.

The closer it gets to departure time, the less you can expect to see of your child. He will likely be spending every waking hour with friends. Allow them this special time together.

Make a financial plan and discuss expectations with your child.

Develop a tentative budget and be clear about who will pay for what. For example, some parents pay for books and supplies, while their child is responsible for incidental expenses such as snacks, movies, and CDs. Other students are responsible for earning a percentage of their tuition. Teach your child about responsible use of credit and debit cards.

Discuss academic goals and expectation ahead of time.

Remember, many freshmen do not do as well academically first semester as they did in high school, and many change their minds about their proposed course of study. Ask them what they hope to accomplish academically during their first year. It is important for them to take ownership of their education. Grades are not the only indication of learning.

Communication: Keeping in touch

Talk to your child about how you'll keep in touch.

Do you want a planned time to talk or do you want to be more spontaneous? A cell phone can be a wonderful way to keep in touch, or it can be, as one student described, an "electronic leash." Encourage your child to use it with discretion and not just to fill in the spaces. E-mail and instant messaging are also wonderful ways to keep in touch. Just don't count on a reply to every message.

Be a coach rather than trying to solve your child's problems yourself.

You're likely to hear more than your share of problems. College students usually call their parents for reassurance when things aren't going well, and call their friends with the latest exciting news. When you get those late night phone calls, and you will, you can encourage your child to use the appropriate campus resources — to go to the health service or career center, to talk to an advisor, dean, a counselor or tutor. Read resource information sent to you by the college so you can be an informed coach for your child.

Be an anchor.

Keep your child informed about changes at home. College students want their parents to accept all the changes they are making but want everything at home to stay the same. So it's important to keep them informed about changes at home, whether it's moving a younger sibling into their room, or, on a more serious note, about illness in the family or the death of a pet. They need this from you in order to feel secure and maintain a sense of trust.

Karen Levin Coburn is the assistant vice chancellor for students and associate dean for freshman transition at Washington University. She is also the coauthor of Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Understanding the College Years.

Madge Lawrence Treeger is a psychotherapist and longtime member of the Washington University Counseling Service. She is also the coathor of Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Understanding the College Years.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

07/12/2012:
"Please post usefull information for Grandparents. "
07/19/2010:
"As parents should we request to see final grade reports on college students? "
06/19/2009:
"This is great information. Unfortunately, this year has been a difficult year with many students not being accepted to their first choice schools and many of my daughter's friends have elected to go to our local state school or community college. My daughter did get in to the university of her choice and although it is a short plane trip away, she is still leaving many of her friends and this is now the time when they are telling her they don't want her to leave which is making her question her decision to go away to college. 'And this too shall pass'"
05/18/2009:
"This really helped so much. I think it's relieved some of the stress I've been feeling with my daughter graduating. Just putting it all into words helps us to let go."
02/9/2009:
"Great article! I can definitely relate to most of this. Thanks for sharing. Speaking of sharing - FYI: My son and daughter are both away at different colleges. I recently sent each of them a care package from this great company Box-O-Box - http://www.boxobox.com - they were both so uplifted by the unique nature of these theme-based care packages, I'm recommending them to all of my friends, and figured I should share with you here!"
04/24/2008:
"Advice is well received. Thank you..."
10/19/2007:
"I liked this article as it made me feel that my relationship with my son is basically 'normal' even though I wasn't sure that it was. Thanks."
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