When Students Move On…What’s a Parent To Do?

All across America, students are moving into their college dorms and saying goodbye to Mom and Dad. Though years have been spent preparing teens for this moment, not much thought has been given to helping parents acclimate to this new transition in their lives. So, what are parents to do when their child goes off to college and they feel the loss?

First, realize that this is normal. You have been caring for and protecting your child for 17 years or more and it’s only natural to feel a little lost and a bit sad. It’s not uncommon for mothers and fathers of freshmen to remark, “I can’t go by her empty bedroom without tearing up,” or “It’s so quiet in the house with him gone.”

Acknowledge your feelings…a stage in your life is over. A new stage has begun – one that you and your child will have to forge together. Here are some tips that might help:

Provide emotional support but don’t jump to solve the problem.

There will be lots of ups and downs during the first year of college.  Even with the support systems in place on most college campuses, kids are fond of calling Mom or Dad and unloading all of the day’s problems. As parents, many of us don’t like our children to be uncomfortable, so we immediately try to solve their problems by giving advice. Try to resist doing that. Instead of providing the solutions, ask yourself, “Who owns the problem?” and try to help your child problem-solve.  Acknowledge feelings (“I’m sorry that didn’t work out.”), ask questions (“What do you think you are going to do?”) and offer positive reinforcement (“I know you will make the right choice.”)  Handling issues in this manner will empower your child to move forward with confidence.

Establish a budget.

Let your child know how much you are prepared to contribute on a weekly basis, so your child can budget the money over time. Children who haven’t had to live on a budget tend to spend whatever they want, whenever they want. Bank accounts can be depleted quickly. Establish what you are paying for and what you expect your child to pay for with the money you are giving them. Stick to the budget, so your child will learn money management, even if you are tempted to give in. A neighbor of mine had a great story about his daughter going off to college and crying about not having enough money to eat. He said, “Do you have bread? Do you have peanut butter? I guess you will be eating that until next week.” His daughter never overspent the budget again.

Agree on a college plan – behavioral and academic.

College is very expensive. Since you are footing the bill, help your child understand your expectations about their behavior and academic progress. You have taught them morals and values and now it’s their time to put them into practice. If they get into trouble (and many of them do, even the ones you don’t think would ever do anything wrong) help them admit their mistakes and deal with the consequences in a responsible manner. Realize that even though children sometimes need to learn things the hard way, we all learn from our mistakes.  Also, make a four-year plan.  If classes aren’t scheduled properly, you might end up spending more money on an extra year of college.  Be clear about your academic expectations.  Are there consequences for getting less than a B?  For losing HOPE?  Our daughter lost her HOPE freshmen year and because we had clearly stated the consequences, we didn’t allow her to go back to school until she could pay the tuition herself.  She worked all summer and fall semester (when her friends were returning to college) but she learned a valuable lesson, regained her HOPE and never earned less than a B+ in a class after that. Only you can decide what works for you and your child, but be clear about your expectations and the resulting consequences.

Stay connected.

It’s not unusual for girls to call several times a day and for boys to wait a week or more to phone home.  Several times a day is too much, whereas once a month might not be frequent enough.  Let your child know that you care about them and are interested in hearing about their college experience, at least once a week.  You might even send them a little “care” package or flowers to let them know you are thinking of them.  Remember, the college transition is stressful for them, too.  Even though they are trying to be young adults, they get lonely and homesick from time to time. Assure them that you are always there for them, but you need to respect each other’s time.

Assess your own life and make new goals.

Now that you have more free time, think about things you still want to accomplish.  Is it time to go back into the work force?  Take a class?  Start a new hobby? Participate in a book group?  Volunteer?  Spend more time as a couple?  Now is the time to make new goals and get going.  You will find that trying new things will not only occupy your time but also give you more topics to discuss with your child.

A parent’s job is to raise a child to be an independent, contributing member of society, and now your child is putting your advice into practice, in the world. If you have done your job, you should have some confidence in your child’s ability to make the right choices.  If not, remember that even though your child doesn’t live with you, you will always be the parent – available for advice.  And be assured that with cell phones, text messages, email and Skype, your child is really never very far away.