The shift in roles when sending a child away to college is as scary and significant as the change in roles when you become a new parent. You’ve spent years actively protecting, teaching and directing the daily life of your child—you were in charge and responsible. Now your role and responsibilities are completely changing, so much so that if the same thing happened at work, your current position would be eliminated and you’d be reassigned to a different position. The prospect is daunting to say the least.
Marshall P. Duke, Professor at Emory University explains, “It is a moment that comes along once in a lifetime. Each child only starts college once…Such moments are rare. They have power.”
Parents are innately aware of this and yet unsure of how to successfully navigate the transition. While striving to do it perfectly, they fear missing the mark. So, it is important to remember this is only the first of many important thresholds your adult child will pass through. There will be heart-wrenching disappointment and joys beyond compare. Navigating both the highs and lows is an imperfect process so offer your child the gift of honesty by owning up to the reality that neither you nor he/she will do things perfectly, and it is okay to talk about the blunders so learning and growth can occur.
Each journey is unique, but below are a few tips to help along the way.
Let Them Lead
- Your child needs to be firmly in the lead even when he/she isn’t doing things the way you would, or the most efficient and convenient way.
- Your child needs to know you believe he/she can be successful so leave the grades up to him/her (unless he/she is in danger of failing).
- When he/she calls with a problem, don’t rush to solve it. Ask good questions to help him/her arrive at his/her own solution.
While launching a child into adulthood is fraught with emotion, don’t make your angst and grief apparent to your child. Young adults often project confidence and excitement, but they have as many fears (and sometimes more) as you do. Focus on your child’s emotions and find healthy spaces to process yours.
Arrange Touch Points
As you drive away from campus, your desire for connection may begin to mount and can cause you to intrude into your child’s newly forming life. This is a time for your child to form new relationships that don’t include you. However, you remain important in his/her life so make sure to set up times to connect.
- Talk about how your child wants you to interact—text, call, Skype, or instant message—and be respectful of the medium he/she prefers.
- Let your child know you’re planning on him/her making “first contact” unless it goes past a predetermined period of time.
- Be prepared for random contacts and quick disconnects. You may become his/her new “walking buddy” as he/she touches base while walking across campus and will need to disconnect when arriving at the destination.
- Appreciate the connections you do have and don’t attempt to guilt your child into a frequency you would prefer.
Every interaction doesn’t need to be a detailed check-in, which could lead to your child limiting contacts with you. Remember, your new job role as cheerleader!
- Most college students appreciate receiving fun messages. Instead of texting to ask about how the test went, send a picture of his/her siblings making weird faces with a caption designed to elicit laughter.
- Send care packages filled with comforting, funny things. Instead of the twelve days of Christmas, try the twelve days before finals and include silly string and other stress relieving goodies to encourage healthy play in the midst of study.
Set Visiting Expectations
While you may really want your child to come home frequently or think about surprising them with a visit, resist acting on these urges.
- It is important for freshmen to remain on campus and focus on making new friends and a new life.
- Your child needs to consent to visits. Think through how you would have felt as a newlywed if your in-laws showed up at your house unannounced. Talk through when your child would like you to visit. If you want to “pop in,” call first and ask if this would be welcome rather than just showing up.
- As the first trip home approaches, discuss what the “new rules” should be now that he/she is an adult. Think through rules you have for any other adult visiting and be clear about what you expect.
Most importantly, enjoy this transition. Step back and appreciate the incredible young adult who is forging a new path.
Jean Holthaus, LMSW, LISW has been providing outpatient therapy services since 1995 when she earned her Masters of Social work degree from the University of Iowa and has worked for Pine Rest since 1997. She currently serves as manager of the Telehealth Clinic and the Hastings Clinic and is also a Pine Rest Outpatient Regional Director. She is trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), interpersonal therapy, and narrative therapy. She is deeply invested in walking with individuals struggling to find meaning an purpose in the mist of the struggles of life. She is also passionate about providing educational services which equip individuals to proactively address mental health issues. Jean started her career as a teacher after earning her BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa in 1985. She was an elementary and junior high teacher for 10 years prior to beginning her career as a therapist.
Jean’s professional experience includes working with children, adolescents, individuals, couples and families within a therapist setting. She has also worked as a dialysis social worker in a hospital setting. Jean enjoys working with adolescents and adults dealing with abuse, depression, marital issues, divorce, spiritual issues, changes of life, parenting, and family issues. She participates with Faith Community Outreach, an initiative within Pine Rest that seeks to connect area clergy, churches, and ministries to services from Pine Rest as well as develop new services specifically designed to benefit the faith community.