Your son or daughter has graduated from high school and is moving on to the next phase in his or her life: college. Naturally, as a parent, this will bring up many different thoughts and feelings. Perhaps this is your first child moving away. Perhaps this is your last child and the empty nest is looming. Perhaps you’re nostalgic for your own “college days” or perhaps no one in your family has traveled this road before. No matter what your circumstance, you are likely thinking of how to make this transition to go smoothly for your son or daughter—and for your family. To support your child in becoming an adult, consider the following tips:
Before Your Child is On Campus
Talk with your son or daughter about his or her feelings about starting college. Let them know that it is normal to have mixed feelings—excitement, joy, fear, sadness—about starting a new phase in their lives. If your child is open to it, find activities that allow you to share the excitement of the transition together—shopping together for dorm supplies, planning the semester’s budget, etc. Share your hopes and expectations and let them know you are there to back them up in making decisions, if needed. If your child has specific needs (e.g., medical, dietary, emotional, spiritual, etc.) talk with your child ahead of time about how to get these needs met while away from home.
It is completely normal for parents to have ambivalent feelings about their child starting college. You may feel happy and excited for them, exceedingly proud of them and, at the same time, sad about them leaving and worried that they will be okay. These feelings can be intensified if your relationship with your child is strained in any way. Be sure to acknowledge your feelings as normal. Get support from friends, family, and other parents so you have an outlet for dealing with your emotions. Try to avoid packing your emotional baggage along with your child’s belongings—they’re likely dealing with their own ambivalent feelings about starting this phase in their lives and may feel guilty or worried if they are unsure you can handle their transition. Take care of yourself. Eat well, get enough sleep, exercise. Keep your routine as much as possible. Engage in a hobby or favorite activity. Journal. Pray.
After Your Child is On Campus
Your son or daughter will likely still want and need contact with you after coming to school, though the frequency and type of contact may change as they become more involved in their college life and feel more secure in it. Negotiate when and how often you would like to connect and how. When you do talk, be aware that your son or daughter may one time request your help and then another time reject it. They may share some things and hold back on talking about others. This is still the natural part of growing up, gaining independence, learning to problem-solve, and figuring it all out. Be aware that it is about their own development and do not personalize this sometimes confusing behavior. As long as they are not in personal danger, give them the space to ask for the type and kind and amount of help they need. Stay involved by checking IN with them about their college experiences—academically, socially, spiritually, etc.—but avoid “policing” or checking UP on them.
Of course, you will still want to help promote their development and growth into adulthood, even though you may have less frequent and direct contact with them. Do remember and understand that college is a time for intellectual, career, and personal development. It is not unusual for students to try new activities, try out new values and beliefs, meet new people and learn new things that offer different perspectives, etc. Sometimes those things may seem to be very different from or even go against how you raised your son or daughter. Most often, they signal self-exploration and experimentation with who they are and who they can be. As they try out new things they gain further competence in making choices for themselves and gaining competence and independence. If you have more than one child in college, expect that the individual reactions to college may be different with each child.
You can certainly still communicate to your son or daughter about realistic expectations you have regarding financial matters, academic performance, and responsible and safe behavior and can let them know you are there to listen as they make their own choices. Check in, be willing to listen, and avoid lecturing. If you are unclear about how your child may respond to various situations, you can ask them what they would do in various scenarios and talk with them about how to respond and problem solve in various problematic situations (e.g., a friend passes out after drinking, they fail a test, they are having conflict with their roommate, etc.).
Know the resources on your child’s campus. Manipal University offers academic, spiritual, residential, career-related, psychological, financial, and various other types of support to help your child be successful at college. Remind your child of the supports available to them in their new environment. As needed, consult with the campus staff and faculty of these departments for how they can help your child or to provide ideas for how you can assist your child in utilizing the services that are available.
If your child needs mental health help while on campus, Counseling Services can be of assistance. If your child has preexisting mental health issues and has been getting psychological help and/or medications for their concerns, know that the transition to college can be difficult and can sometimes exacerbate symptoms. Check out the center’s services and staff before your child arrives on campus. Consult about your child’s needs and about whether Counseling Services or community resources would best support their needs. Once on campus, your child can arrange for Counseling Services’ staff to get records from previous counseling to ensure continuity of care. Also, before they are even on campus, talk with your child about the transition and how to cope with things.
Even if your child has not had previous mental health issues, be aware that a stressful—even though positive and welcomed—transition to college can sometimes trigger emotional concerns. Homesickness and loneliness can sometimes lead into depression. Pressures for high academic performance can sometime develop into anxiety and panic. Again, know the resources available on campus for help. Be aware and alert for (usually multiple) signs of potential mental health issues: disturbance of sleep and eating patterns, erratic behavior or speech, talk about suicide, hopelessness, dramatic changes in mood, behavior, and/or appearance, abuse of alcohol, drugs, or money, a greater-than-expected confusion about their identify, and so forth. If you notice these signs in your son or daughter, do encourage him or her to get help. Share your observations about what you’re noticing in them and about your concerns. Consult with campus resources to let them know your concerns about your child and to seek assistance in how to help your child. If there is reason to believe they are dangerous to themselves or others, get help immediately.
If your son or daughter is receiving counseling—whether for crisis situations or for problem-solving or for self-exploration—please note that their participation in counseling is legally protected by confidentiality guidelines. What this means is that a counselor cannot even acknowledge that your child is utilizing the counseling center and that no information about their counseling can be alluded to or shared in any way. In order to get information about your child’s therapy, a release of information form must be signed by your child. Your child may or may not be willing to sign the form and, by law, they have that right to decide if they are over 18 years of age. However, Counseling Services’ staff can gather information from you or talk about how to support and help your child, can connect you with other campus resources, and can let you know the kinds of ways that Counseling Services may assist in crisis situations.
Your child’s entrance into college marks his or her first steps into adulthood. Helping your son or daughter to prepare–and preparing yourselves as parents–can greatly ease the stress of this transition and can keep you connected in the process.