Four years ago, Mike and I sent our daughter off to college. (She’s now a college graduate!) Two years later, it was our son’s turn to follow. As our youngest, his departure meant a larger transition for Mike and me, as we became empty nesters–but we had a much better sense of what our son really needed from us. That made the whole process much less scary for everyone involved.
If you’re sending a son or daughter off to college this fall, here are five tips for parenting a new college student.
Keep in touch
You’ll have to negotiate what this means, exactly, but it’s important to remember that no 18 year old really wants to be completely on their own (no matter what they might say to the contrary.) These days, keeping in touch usually means texting and using social media rather than making phone calls. Send a text, post a meme on your kid’s Facebook wall–whatever you’re comfortable with. Just do something to let your kid know that you haven’t stopped thinking about them. Chances are, they’ll be more inclined to come to you when they’re having a rough day.
But, on the other hand . . .
Give them space
If your student doesn’t respond to a text right away–or even on the day it’s sent–don’t get worried, and don’t get angry. They’re adults now. They’re living their lives. Remember, that’s been your goal all along.
At first, my daughter was responding to messages almost immediately. As she made more friends and became more involved on campus, I sometimes didn’t hear from her every day. This was a really hard adjustment, because the two of us are very close. But I told myself that no news was good news, took a deep breath, and waited for her to reply. (I also learned that it was possible to keep up with her in other ways–by looking at her Facebook or Twitter feed, for instance–without hearing from her directly.)
Some adult children may check in every day. Others won’t. Your job is to figure out how to live with their decision, because it’s theirs to make. You can play the parent card–I’m paying for your college education, so I still expect you to check in with me–but that only ensures your communications will be terse and uninformative.
Let them come to you when they have something to say. You might actually find out how things are going.
If you’re going to check your college student’s Facebook and Instagram feeds, you will probably see things you’d rather not. At that point, you have two choices:
- Stop looking.
- Bite your tongue.
Your student has control over what you see via social media. If you start making judgmental comments about their behavior, you likely won’t see it anymore. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the behavior has changed. It might just mean your student is now hiding that behavior from you.
Unless your goal is to drive your student’s behavior underground (which does no one any good), keep quiet. If you’re genuinely concerned about something, alert the residence hall director or dean of students. They’re trained to intervene when they need to, and they can do so without telling your student who alerted them to the problem.
Develop a sanity plan
Some parents have a designated time of day, or day of the week, for speaking with their college student. My daughter and I were never that regimented; I just made it clear that I needed to hear from her on a semi-regular basis (which we defined as two or three times a week) in order to maintain my sanity. And when I say “hear from her,” I mean that I asked for nothing more than a text saying something like “Just letting you know I’m fine.”
I quickly learned that sending messages via Facebook Messenger allowed me to see when she’d checked that message, even if she didn’t reply. This allowed me to see that she was, in fact, perfectly fine, without the need for a message saying so. Initially, my son preferred to use Messenger for friends only. Once he realized the benefit of letting me see that he’d viewed a message, he decided to start using Messenger in place of texting.
Remind yourself (daily) that they’re still kids.
In spite of the fact that 18-year-olds are legally responsible for the consequences of their own behavior, I think we all know that they’re not really adults. They’re kids living in adult-like bodies. I say “adult-like” for a reason: the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain we use for rational decision making, isn’t fully developed until at least the age of 25.
This means college students are going to do irrational things. They’re going to stay up too late, then complain of being tired. They’re going to make poor food choices, then complain about weight gain. And they’re going to blame their professors for making exams too hard rather than studying harder for exams.
They have to learn by trial and error, no matter how much we’d like to save them from the pain of that process. Eventually, they’ll figure out that getting eight hours of sleep every night helps them perform better in their classes—not because we told them (over and over again) that it would, but because they figured it out for themselves.
Sending a kid into the world involves a difficult adjustment for everyone: for the kid being sent as well as the parents who do the sending. But, as I told my son when he was feeling anxious about leaving home for college, “If you never do anything scary, you’re going to live a very small life.”
Our job, as parents, is to help our children live big lives. Taking big steps–like heading off to college–is just one part of that adventure.