A Parent’s Guide to Managing the Transition to College with Your Son/Daughter, Part I

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There are many milestones in our life that lead us to pause and reflect on our changing roles; becoming a parent and then seeing them grow into adulthood are two of those milestones.  In “another life” I had the pleasure of working in university settings, experiencing and witnessing the process of new students growing into adulthood.  In that setting there is a parallel process also occurring, namely parents learning how to “let go” and begin creating a new type of relationship with their young adult.  The process carries with it a multitude of emotions, some of them conflicting at times, yet these emotions are indicative of significant changes that are taking place internally as well as externally.

This guide is organized in a two-part series. In this article you will find useful information to help you understand your own experience, the experience of your “college” student, and the experience of the whole family. In part two of this series (which will be posted next month,) you will find helpful strategies to employ before your student goes to college, and after.

The Emotional Roller Coaster

Recognize this is a time of ambivalence for all parents.

The excitement and joy about opportunities awaiting your son/daughter are mixed with the waves of nostalgia, a sense of loss, and maybe some “worry” about sending your student out into the world.  Letting go of those “when s/he was 2 years old” images is challenging; those thoughts and images can cloud our ability to clearly see the excitement of the future before us, and acknowledge that your son/daughter is moving into young adulthood.  A good idea is to talk with other parents who are going through the same thing.

Recognize your student’s conflicting emotions.

Your son/daughter, like you, is being pulled between past, present and future … one day exclaiming, “Leave me alone, I’m 18 years old, I’m independent,” and the next complaining, “You’re never around when I need you.” This is a significant time for them, on one hand ready for “adulthood” yet on the other hand feeling uncertain about being on their own.  These ups and downs are a sign of the ambivalence of this transitional time, and indication that your support and steady gait will be comforting to them.

Recognize the changes in other family members.

When the realization is setting in that there are eminent changes on the horizon your family dynamics may shift.  You may see siblings getting “clingy” with the soon-to-be college student, or withdrawn as anticipation of the changes ahead become real.  Siblings may also be talking about “moving in” to the college student’s bedroom, creating conflict and hurt feelings.  As parents, you can help your family adjust to this process by helping them acknowledge the loss of an important family member while remaining positive about the change. You want to be able to model excitement with understanding of these varied emotions.

Take comfort in the knowledge that part of you is going with your student.

Worries about academic challenges, alcohol/drug use, sexual experimentation, or other major life behaviors are expected for us as parents; we do want our student to be happy and safe.  The foundation you have provided over the past 18 years will accompany your son/daughter across the miles and throughout the years.  I’ve talked to parents and reminded them that a son/daughter’s successful admittance to the university is a testimony to their diligence and support, and those life lessons leading to this stage will continue to guide them in the decisions and choices they make.

Be an optimistic realist to your student.

You may look back on your college years, or first time away from home, and remember primarily the good times; you have wisdom with that hindsight which sometimes softens the “hard” memories [e.g., “all-nighters”, ramen 3 times a day, 6 roommates, broken heart].  Preparing your student is letting them know that you want them to enjoy their life, and you recognize that there will be rough patches along the way; assure them of your faith in their ability to manage these times and offer your presence without forcing it on them.

Enjoy this time of celebration.

The excitement of high school graduation, special summer vacation, receiving college admission letters, roommate notifications, campus visits, and shopping for college supplies are ever present in the months to come.  Think of small ways to celebrate your pride in your student and this accomplishment.

During the coming months leading to high school graduation, recognize that this is now a new milestone for you, as a parent, and for your son/daughter, and as with many milestones we want to celebrate the accomplishments leading to this moment in time.   The future for your son/daughter lies before them and they have skills you’ve provided to guide them on this path.  Your future, too, is before you learning how to engage your son/daughter as an adult, someone who still needs your presence and counsel while wanting your faith and confidence in their ability to manage this significant change.

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