Tips for Parents of New College Students

The Emotional Roller Coaster

Recognize this is a time of ambivalence for all parents. The excitement and joy about opportunities awaiting your child are mixed with the waves of nostalgia and a sense of loss. Talk with other parents who are going through the same thing.

Take comfort in the knowledge that part of you is going with your child. The foundation you have provided over the past years will accompany your child across the miles and throughout the years.

Don't tell your child, "These are the best years of your life." No one is happy all the time between the ages of 18 and 23, and when a student is homesick or overtired from studying all night, it's not reassuring to have parents imply that this is as good as it gets.

Enjoy this time of celebration. Try not to focus so much on the upcoming departure that you might miss the full impact of senior year festivities and the joy of summer days ahead.

The Summer Before

Make a financial plan and discuss expectations with your child. Develop a tentative budget and be clear about who will pay for what. For example, some parents pay for books and supplies, while their child is responsible for other expenses such as snacks and movies. Teach your child about responsible use of credit and debit cards.

Discuss academic goals and expectation ahead of time. Many freshmen do not do as well academically their first semester as they did in high school, and many change their minds about their proposed course of study. Ask them what they hope to accomplish academically during their first year. It's important for them to take ownership of their education. Grades are not the only indication of learning.

Communication: Keeping in Touch

Talk to your child about how you'll keep in touch. Do you want a planned time to talk or do you want to be more spontaneous? Encourage your child to use their cell phone with discretion and not just to fill in the spaces. Email and instant messaging are also ways to keep in touch.

Be a coach rather than trying to solve your child's problems yourself. You're likely to hear more than your share of problems. College students usually call their parents for reassurance when things aren't going well, and call their friends with the latest exciting news. When you get those late night phone calls, you can encourage your child to use the appropriate campus resources—counseling services or career center, to talk to an advisor or tutor.

Be an anchor. Keep your child informed about changes at home. College students want their parents to accept all the changes they're making, but typically like everything at home to stay the same. It's important to keep them informed about changes, whether it's moving a younger sibling into their room, or a more serious issue.

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 roommates. Photographs are personal reminders of home. Holiday decorations, baskets of treats during exam time, and even everyday necessities like shampoo are reminders that say, "I'm thinking of you."

When Students Come Back Home

Renegotiate expectations. Your child has been making decisions on how they'll spend time for many months. You however, may have strong feelings of your own when they come in late at night, or sleep late in the morning. Most students respond well if parents treat them with respect. For example, a parent might say, "I know you're used to being out late 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."

Understand that the college years are a time for exploration. Your son or daughter may come home with a new look; or new politics, philosophies, or eating habits. Most of these changes are not permanent. Take a step back 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. 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.

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

Letting Go

After 18 years of parenting, it can be hard to let go. Here is a sneak peek at the challenges of the transition ahead and advice to prepare right now.

"Letting Go" A Parent's Guide to Understanding the College Years" book cover