How Much to Parent Your College Kids
Your off-to-college FAQs answered here
When beloved kids leave for college, your role as a parent shifts, but doesn’t come to an end.
Especially for college freshmen, first-year adjustments often call for a lot of parental support. The reality of college life is not always as rosy as those catalogs lead you to believe: high-rates of loneliness and depression, particularly the first year; rampant alcohol abuse and a drop-out rate of 50 percent.
But how much should you step in and how much should you stand back to let your college students figure things out for themselves?
In this column, we’ll answer some of college parents' frequently asked questions that can help you as you navigate the fine line between staying connected and letting resilience and independence take root.
Q: How much communication is the right amount with our brand new, off-to-college kids?
Contact ebbs and flows through the stormy weather and calmer zones of the 20s. There’s often a barrage of calls, texts and emails when kids first leave home and burst with hot-off-the-press news or the need for a shoulder to cry on — or a cash infusion. Newly-arrived college freshmen may still rely on parents’ guidance in making decisions such as which classes to take, how to resolve roommate disagreements and how to open a bank account. But as students get their bearings and build new networks, calls and emails usually drop off.
The best policy is to follow your child's lead about how and how often to be in touch — phone, email, text or some combination of the three (but don’t waste your breath on voicemails: most twentysomethings rarely, if ever, check them).
With some students, a weekly check-in will be enough. Other kids favor closer contact, and the chance to talk or text while crossing campus or waiting for a bus may help take the edge off early homesickness.
If your usually good communicator suddenly goes missing for a week or two of zero contact, it may just mean that life is happily full and attention is elsewhere. But it can also be a sign of trouble brewing or a crisis that has deepened into despair. You have to make a sensible judgment about each child and each situation based on what you know about your son or daughter. If a longer than usual silence suggests that a child is having a hard time, or a recent call home has been particularly emotional, it might be time to follow up with an email or text: “R U OK?”
At the other extreme, if you feel inundated by a nonstop communication barrage from your kids, be reassured that the passage of time will most likely ease this frequency as they develop a network of friends nearby to consult for help and advice.
If you still feel you’re drowning in their requests, consider setting some ground rules for contact. But be careful: you don’t want to turn away a child who is in need of your help. And keep in mind this paradox — often, if children know they can lean on you and not be pushed away or belittled, they’ll start gaining confidence and be less, not more, dependent.
Q: In high school I was a resource of help for my kids on homework and making decisions about which classes they should take. What about my role now that they’re in college?
It’s true that the amount of parental involvement will downshift as your kids change over from high school to college. You probably want to avoid being the parent who does so much behind-the-scenes work on your college kids’ papers that you take it personally when they get a B. Or the parents whose college kids choose their major to please their elders, even though it’s not really their first choice.
Although it’s fine to be involved in lively conversation about paper topics or college majors, it’s best to take a back seat and encourage the resources that colleges offer for student support — such as a writing center, the student’s adviser, professors’ office hours or teaching assistants to give guidance on student papers. If they’re uncertain about which major to choose, you might suggest a direct discussion with faculty or older students about the best fit, its requirements and potential for the future.
Q: Our freshman daughter has been at college for a month, and every day, she calls home crying. We didn’t expect this, and our hearts are breaking, plus our skills are not quite up to the job. Help! Is this normal? How should we handle our daughter’s upset?
Many new students, like your daughter, find the transition to college a rocky one. After all, they’re making a life from scratch and all at once: a new residence, new roommates, new friends, higher academic requirements and for many, the challenge of combining school and a job.
Distress can come from many sources: they don’t like their roommate situation, classes are harder than expected or they’re rattled because home was a safe, secure, nurturing place and the college world feels colder and crueler.
No surprise that the dropout rate is higher in the first year of college than in any year that follows, as young people try to meet so many challenges at once and sometimes fall short.
But for most students, after an initial settling-in period of anywhere from a month to three or four, they’ll not only find their way in the once unfamiliar setting, but they’ll also find friends and romantic partners who will provide new sources of support. Until they do, they may need more nurturing than you — or they — expected.
This emotional support may mean visiting them or having them come home more often than planned for weekend visits. It may also mean many texts per day back and forth or frequent (and teary) phone conversations. The best you can do now is to make time for your daughter to vent about her difficulties while also showing her that you have faith she will be able to resolve them.
Being there for college students when they need it will help them hang in there instead of dropping out. Support ultimately leads to autonomy, not dependence.
By Thanksgiving, most returning freshmen are sounding more secure, and for many, by the time they head back to campus after winter break, they’re old-timers. Not that this means all their problems are over, but the issues are not likely to be as intense in later years as they are at the beginning. If you or your daughter still have unresolved concerns, consider a consultation with a professional counselor at the student health center. They’ve seen it all!
Q: Our son has been at college for one semester and is already talking about dropping out. It took so much effort to get into this college, and we had such high hopes for him there. What do we say to him?
Occasionally, a young person dips a toe into college life and knows instinctively that he or she is not ready for it. This may be a warning sign to parents of academic, social or emotional problems that may call for professional help. Or it might simply be a need for some extra time to mature, find a job, stay closer to home for a while longer and pursue other, non-academic interests.
The first thing to do is to listen to his concerns. Is he homesick, having roommate problems or missing a significant other someplace else? Having trouble handling his classes or the balance of school and social life or the demands of a job? Is he unfocused or having drug or alcohol issues? Has he found that this school is not a good fit but feels that another one might be?
If he’s willing to stay for one more semester, he may be able to address some of these issues with help on campus or make some changes that will improve his situation (like finding a new roommate or working fewer hours at his job). Or he can apply to a different college for the following year and transfer, being surer about what he’s looking for.
If, after thorough discussion, your son does decide to take time off, help him come up with a plan going forward. Will he look for a job or volunteer, live at home, contribute to rent, take a class at a community college to explore new interests? Ideally, he’ll ask his college for a leave of absence in order to leave the door open to return.
For many students like your son, the journey through college is not smooth and direct but wind-blown and delayed. Today it often takes five to six years for the typical student to get a “four-year” degree. It may help to realize that these changes are a normal part of the explorations of emerging adulthood.
Most students come to college with an unformed, open-ended identity. They don’t know yet who they are and what they want out of life, including what to study and what kind of work they want to do. College is the place for answering these momentous questions, and some students can’t box them into four years.
Taking five or six years to finish a four-year degree does not mean your child is falling behind: it means he’s following the path typical for emerging adults today. Of course, it’s not unreasonable for parents to say, “We’ll pay for four years, but after that you have to pay more (or all) of the rest.” This approach depends on parents’ views of what is appropriate, as well as their finances.
Just keep in mind that getting that degree is ultimately the ticket to the good life in today’s economy. Attaining a bachelor’s degree is a major accomplishment and substantial boost toward adult success, even if it takes longer than expected. Do what you can, within reason, to help your student get there.