College and the Parenting Role Shift


The FASFA forms have been successfully completed, college roommate assignments received, dorm room supplies purchased, and yet…

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 Your College Student Lead

Remember, your role is changing to cheerleader and consultant rather than director.

  • 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.

Don’t Over-Share

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.

Use Humor

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.


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