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Letting go: Tips for parents of new college students

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By Karen Levin Coburn , Madge Lawrence Treeger

Acknowledge that college today is different.

Although century-old buildings look untouched by time, college life today is very different from the campus scene 25 or 30 years ago. For those of you who went to college, think twice before beginning a sentence with "When I was in college..."

Ask about courses rather than focusing on grades.

Invite your child to share with you the discovery of new ideas, academic interests and intellectual passions.

Send care packages.

Early in the year, sharing popcorn or chocolate chip cookies is a wonderful way for a student to meet floor mates. Photographs are personal reminders of home. Holiday decorations, baskets of treats at exam time, and even everyday necessities like shampoo and quarters for the washing machine are reminders that say, "I'm thinking of you."

When students come back home

Renegotiate expectations.

Your child has been making decisions on how she will spend her time for many months. You, however, may have strong feelings of your own when she comes in late at night, sleeps late in the morning or arrives late for dinner. Most students respond well if parents treat them with respect. For example, a parent might say, "I know you're used to being out until all hours of the night at school, but I can't sleep when I wake up at 2 in the morning and you're not here. Let's talk about how we're going to handle this so that we'll both feel good about it." It takes flexibility and communication to find a common ground.

Understand that the college years are a time for exploration.

Your son or daughter may come home with a new look; someone else's clothes; or new politics, philosophies, or eating habits. Most of these changes are not permanent. Take a step back, have a sense of humor, and pick your battles.

Don't overschedule.

Tell your child ahead of time about family plans, especially over the holidays, so that he or she can make plans accordingly.

Throughout the college years

Expect change.

Students will change the way they think and way they look. Many will change their majors and career goals. They need you to stick with them, have patience when they are uncertain and support them as they chart the course of their own lives.

College students care more about what you think than they are likely to let you know.

They quote you, talk about you and look to you for encouragement. As they journey toward adulthood and independence, sometimes they want your advice and sometimes they just want you to listen. And as one of them put it, "We just won't tell you which time is which."

Welcome to the delights and dilemmas of being a parent of a college student.

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 readers

"Please post usefull information for Grandparents. "
"As parents should we request to see final grade reports on college students? "
"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'"
"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."
"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 - - 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!"
"Advice is well received. Thank you..."
"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."