Helping Your Child Transition to College
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The excitement over acceptance letters (and drama over rejection letters) … ancient history. Shopping for dorm room supplies … check. The big drop-off … complete.
Your child’s freshman year of college has officially begun. Now what?!!!
As the parent of a freshman, you play a significant role in helping your child transition to college. It may feel like one of your trickiest parental responsibilities to date. Yet its importance cannot be overstated.
Preparing your child for success in college — and beyond — relies on striking a balance between offering support and teaching self-reliance. What makes it even trickier is that, in the process, you’re likely on your own emotional roller coaster.
KEY STRATEGIES FOR HELPING YOUR CHILD TRANSITION TO COLLEGE
As a parent, you already know to expect the unexpected. Now that your child is in college, you may want to ramp it up a notch as new situations and challenges arise.
Unlike the specific skills and proficiencies you may have helped your child master up to this point, perhaps the greatest gift you can now give them is the ability to be self-reliant in the face of a challenge. How do you do that?
Park the helicopter — For starters, recognize the disservice of helicopter parenting — particularly at the college level. Every time you step in to handle your student’s challenge, you send a very strong message: “You aren’t strong/smart/resourceful enough to handle this situation on your own.” Not only that, you deny him a chance to experiment with different solutions and experience the triumph of solving a problem independently. Worse yet, a study by two California State University-Fresno professors found that over-parenting of college students resulted in “lower maladaptive job search and work behavior.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the problem may not be you. It may be a skittish child who wants to email you every paper to check for grammar and punctuation. While you might agree to help edit a big term paper or project from time to time, remind your child of her competence, and give her a little nudge out of the nest. It’s time.
Encourage resourcefulness — The pricetag of tuition may be high, but with it comes a plethora of resources. From tutoring services to resource centers, colleges and universities offer an array of academic, health and social services, usually at little or no cost. In helping your child transition to college, teach him to know when to get help — and how to find it.
Teach resilience — Mental toughness, or the ability to bounce back from a difficult situation, can be learned. In helping your child transition to college, you have the opportunity to teach her about resilience every time she faces and overcomes an obstacle, from a lost meal plan card to a failed midterm exam or an argument with a roommate.
Support career discovery — It’s never too early for your child to identify their talents, aptitudes, interests and values in order to determine their best career fit. In fact, the sooner they do, the better positioned they will be to choose the right major and classes — and to apply to the right internships. And while there are a range of career resources available to them, working with an experienced, credentialed career coach is the fastest, most accurate way to help your child identify his or her best career fit.
Recognize risk — Loneliness, depression, suicide and substance abuse are real problems among college students. As a responsible parent, if you suspect a problem, take action by calling a suicide hotline or substance abuse center for professional advice. Phone calls are free, anonymous and may save your child’s life.
AGREE NOT TO DISAGREE
The best way to avoid heated arguments halfway through the semester is to set up some agreements as you and your child both make the transition to his or her first year of college.
Following are a few topics to discuss to make sure you and your college freshman are on the same page:
- Will you have access to your student’s grades? If your child is over 18, he or she will have to go online and grant you that access. Sorry, Mom and Dad, that’s the law — even if you’re footing the bill.
- What are your performance expectations for your child? Up to this point, depending on your family’s values, the goal of good grades was likely “to get into a good college.” What’s next? Is it sufficient for your child to maintain a “C” average, or do you expect more? Who sets the goals as your child transitions to college?
- Did your child bring a car to school? If so, are there parameters in place? Can your child take road trips at whim? Can they let others drive?
- What expenses are you willing to pay — or not? Have you agreed upon a monthly budget? What expenses beyond tuition, books and meals are you willing to cover? Is there a limit on discretionary spending?
- Is Greek life an option? Can your child join a fraternity or sorority — and if the college allows, can he or she do so freshman year? Who will pay the dues and other associated costs?
- What about a job? Some parents encourage their child to get a job to help defray the expenses associated with college (and to teach them responsibility) while others insist that being a student is their number one priority while in college. Where do you fall on the spectrum, and how does that align with your child’s ideas about taking a part-time job?
NAVIGATING THE NEW RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR CHILD
Unless your child has attended boarding school, the transition to college means not living under the same roof with you for the better part of nine months of the year. It’s a giant leap in separation that may feel, at times, like it comes in gradual bursts. To manage the transition more smoothly:
- Be there for your child without being intrusive — Now that your child isn’t living in the next room, you may be tempted to text or pick up the phone to see how things are going. Often. If your child’s college is close enough, driving up for a quick lunch or dinner may be tough to resist. Or you might go to the opposite extreme, thinking you’re “giving your child space.” Think like Goldilocks when you’re tempted to contact or visit your child. Is it too much, too little? Try to find the “just-right” mark. If you’re not sure, ask!
- Anticipate fluctuations — From mood swings to hot and cold phone calls, things may be a little unpredictable for a while. That’s OK. During freshman year of college, your child is adapting to this newfound independence. That means some days she may feel like talking, and other days not so much.
- Know that you are still a source of support — A survey by the Jed Foundation found that parents are the primary source of support for 63 percent of college students experiencing emotional distress. Keep the lines of communication as open as you would with your child if they were still living at home.
TAKE GOOD CARE — OF YOU
While your child is the one making the physical move from home to school, the emotional impact on you, as parent, can be significant as well. Conjuring up memories of your own glory days (was it really that long ago?!), sending your child off to college can catapult you into a mid-life slump if you let it get the best of you. You might also suffer from empty-nest syndrome, feeling more than a little lonely until you settle into your own new routine.
Keep these points in mind as you are going through your own adjustments to this new reality:
- Accept that your emotions are real — Helping your child transition to college is actually a milestone that lasts throughout the full academic year. Like other significant events in life — yours and your child’s — milestones are a breeding ground for reflection. Go with it. Create a little montage in your head and reflect on how much fun you’ve had over the past 18 years. Laugh. Cry. Accept that time has gone by quickly. You’re not imagining it.
- But keep your emotions in check — “Lonely” is the closest word the English language has to describe the flip side of homesick for the one(s) left at home. While your child may be missing the comforts of home — or not — it may pain you even more every time you walk past his bedroom door and see the perfectly made bed (the one you used to fight about on a daily basis throughout high school). While some parents cheerfully wave good-bye as they drive away from the dorm, others — particularly parents who routinely sat down to family dinners or otherwise spent a lot of “together time” with their kids — may struggle for weeks or months. Keep busy. Spend time with friends and other family members and indulge in “you” time.
- Rediscover what makes you tick — Sometimes parents get so busy in their “supporting roles” as chauffeurs, tutors and coaches that they forget their own passions. Now is the time to find them again.
PARENTING ADVICE 101
College upperclassmen reflect on their — and their parents’ — transition to college:
- “I loved getting care packages the week before finals. The treats my mom sent reminded me of home and took away some of the boredom of the long hours of studying.”
- “I knew my mom was going to be sad when I left for college, but I didn’t think it would be this hard for her. Sometimes I felt guilty for having so much fun and wondered if I should transfer back to a local college to be closer to her.”
- “My dad and I talked by phone every Sunday night. I think we both liked the predictability.”
- “I was really afraid to talk to my parents about switching my major halfway through the year, but they were really good about hearing me out and helping me find the right people to help me make the change.”
- “My dad wanted to come to all of my club soccer games. I felt really bad telling him that he could come to a couple, but that parents don’t come to college club games like they do in high school.”
- “I freaked out when my laptop crashed, but my mom was really calm and helped me figure out how to get help on campus. The tech center here is great!”
PARENTS: THE MASTERS OF TRANSITION
One thing parents know for sure: With kids, change is constant. “It’s just a phase” is a mantra parents learn early and use often.
By its very nature, change can be exciting and challenging all at once — or on alternating days. Parents are in the unique position to help tame the emotional roller coaster as their child makes the transition to college. They can also be pivotal in helping their child develop greater self-reliance, resourcefulness and resilience.
As freshman year unfolds, so will the evolution in the parent-child relationship. By the time winter break rolls around — faster than anyone realizes it will — it will be time to readjust to life with your college-age child back at home. Another story for another day.