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Off to College: How to Step Back but Stay Connected

3 common issues your kid may face and what to do (or not do) to help

posted by Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett, September 9, 2014 More by this author

College student looking overwhelmed

Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett are co-authors of Getting to 30: A Parent's Guide to the 20-Something Years. Fishel is the author of four other books on families, including Sisters and Reunion. Arnett is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University.


College student looking overwhelmed
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“Off to college!” It’s a familiar phrase in American life, and one tinged with a sentimental glow. It conjures images of throwing Frisbees on the quad, stretching your mind to contain a wealth of new knowledge and meeting the people who will become your best friends, including, perhaps, the love of your life.
 
However, the reality of college life is quite a bit different for most young people, and not nearly so romantic: high rates of loneliness and depression, especially the first year, and a drop-out rate of nearly 50 percent.
 
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If you have a child leaving for college, how can you respond in a way that will help increase the chances of a happy and successful transition? Here are three issues that we have found to be common, and some ideas for how parents can help.
 
1. Time management: Parent as alarm clock? One of the key challenges for new students is managing their time, now that they don’t have mom or dad around to shake them awake in the morning or remind them to do their homework. The freedom to run their own lives can be exhilarating at first. They can sleep through their morning class, and nobody cares — nobody will even know! But most learn pretty quickly that freedom isn’t free, and if they don’t learn to set their own limits, they’ll suffer the consequences.
 
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You may be tempted to heed their requests to give them a wake-up call before their exam or remind them to finish their English paper, but we’d advise caution. They need to learn to do these things themselves, nearly all of them are fully capable of it, and this is a major part of what they will learn from their college experience. Step back from this kind of involvement, even as you stay connected to provide encouragement and moral support.
 
2. Money management: The bank of Mom and Dad? Money management is just as new to most freshmen as time management — and can be just as daunting. For 18 years, Mom and Dad have paid all or most of the bills. Even in college, at least for the first year or two, dorm life is a kind of semi-dependence, where older adults are still in charge of providing food and paying the electric bill. Nevertheless, college students have to manage money for their other expenses, such as books, travel and weekend leisure. Where should that money come from? How much should parents provide?
 
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Each family has its own customs and values regarding money to guide the answers to these questions. Our advice is that it’s best to have open discussions about money issues before college starts and then on a regular basis through the college years. Sit down together the summer before college and work out a budget for the first semester. Figure out how much the expenses are going to be, and then decide who is going to pay how much. At the end of every semester, calculate how everything worked out, and adjust next semester’s budget accordingly. This is good training for them, not only for the college years but for their adult lives to come.
 
3. Roommate from hell  Many students have high ideals for their roommate, imagining someone who will be a companion, a confidant, maybe even a best friend. When imagination meets reality, however, clashes are common and compromises are necessary. So what can parents do, and what should parents do, when conflicts arise?
 
Probably the first step is to resist the temptation to intervene immediately. Of course parents feel protective and want to do something to make things right. But at first, it is probably best to encourage students to try to handle the situation themselves. Even if students are complaining bitterly on the phone, that may not mean they want parents to jump in right away to save the day. Maybe they just want you to listen. Start with that, and help the student generate options for how to handle the situation — for example, calm but direct discussion with the roommate, or getting the Resident Assistant (RA) involved as a mediator — but without dictating what to do.
 
Of course, every child is different, and you know your child better than anyone else does. Ultimately, you should do whatever you feel you need to do to help your child stay motivated and get to the finish line. More than ever, a college degree is the ticket to the good life in today’s economy. Do what you can, within reason, to help them get there.