Supporting Your New College Student
Parenting doesn’t stop when your child leaves the house
Fall is the season when many parents send a son or daughter off to college for the first time. But your connection doesn’t stop just because your child is a few towns away or hundreds of miles across the country.
We helped our son enter an out-of-state college last year. Even though he is a motivated student, we were concerned about him being far away from our family support network. After college visits and accompanying him to orientation weekend with a full load of supplies for his dorm room, we thought he was all set. But just a few short weeks later, he wanted to quit university, midway through his first semester. He is now entering his second year and thriving, but the path there was not without a few bumps.
Here is what we have learned, with some advice from experts, about how you can support your new college student’s growth, development and independence after they start college.
Be knowledgeable about campus resources
As your teen learns more about being an adult, your role will change, but your student still needs you. Familiarize yourself with your student’s college website, thoroughly read the parent handbook and bookmark the school calendar. Most universities have resources designed specifically for parents and provide a great deal of information on everything from financial aid to different departments and counseling. If your student has declared a major, read up on the department, read professor bios and note staff contacts.
Navigating a large university system can be a challenge for any adult, and even more so for a teen juggling many new priorities. Knowing the school’s resources will help you be a referral source should your student ask you for advice.
For example, our son was disappointed to learn that applying for scholarships was not a one-time deal. Now that he was in school, he also needed references from professors. I was able to suggest who he might talk to for a reference, fulfilling the role of mentor when asked. Resist the urge to pick up the phone or write an email to the school. It is important to empower your student to work through problems on their own.
College is much different from high school
Students just starting out may have a media-influenced view of college. But Hollywood rarely shows that young adults can feel lonely, cut-off, insecure and make a few mistakes. One complaint we heard from our son in the first weeks is that the teachers didn’t like him. If your child had gotten to know all of the staff while in high school, and was often recognized for his or her achievements, college might feel a bit sterile and unfeeling.
In an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Bill Gordon advises students to look at the university as a service provider. The teacher is a part of the service, and the student essentially pays their salary. If your student is not getting what they need, advise them to speak with the teacher during office hours to get clarification on assignments, expectations and upcoming tests.
The other major difference many students realize is the workload is tremendously more difficult and time consuming than in high school. According to a study published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, 48 percent of faculty members expect students to do six or more hours of homework every week, while only 17 percent of secondary school teachers expected that much work. Fifty-five percent of secondary school teachers expected only three to five hours of homework a week, and a full 28 percent — that’s over a quarter—expected no homework to two hours of homework per week.
Spending so much time studying cuts into personal time, and students may have a hard time finding a balance. For our kid, he was able to carve out more study time by finding a quiet place to study in a little used building, away from the rowdy dorms.
Students might also be disappointed in their class schedule. In the first year, your son or daughter might not even take a class related to their major, as they get their “General Requirements” for graduation out of the way. There might be a club that satisfies their passion, and is a great way to socialize with other students who share a common interest.
Some students struggle with required courses such as chemistry, calculus or English, and may be tempted to give up. Getting a tutor should be encouraged. Here’s the key point to make clear—it gets easier.
It’s not that the courses get easier- they don’t, they get harder. But the longer the student sticks with it, the better they get at studying, taking notes, and building up knowledge toward their major. So in a sense, college feels easier as time goes on.
Counsel your student to take a normal credit load, and try not to over-do it their first year. After all, college is also a time of self-discovery, inspiration and meeting new people.
Stay connected but not overbearing
Support your student by keeping up communication via phone, email, instant messages and even snail mail. Students love to get real mail, especially care packages.
One particularly thoughtful gift my sister sent to our son was a handful of gift cards for local eateries close to campus. We sent power bars, pain reliever and a stress ball before finals week.
Please understand your student may not respond to all of your messages. Don’t take it personally. They are juggling many new priorities and are a bit self-centered on their own needs. Keep up the communication and connection though. Even a simple “I’m thinking of you” message will be appreciated. Let your daughter or son initiate or decide whether they want you to make a campus visit.
Your student may share something he or she learned like it was the first time ever this information came to light. Indulge them. He or she is experiencing new viewpoints and perspectives that may challenge prior belief systems. Try to listen and converse about ideas without being judgmental. Changes in viewpoints, behavior, dress, eating and sleeping habits will likely change many times as your offspring mature into adulthood.
Campus is a much different environment than home. Some colleges have more of a party reputation than others. Overall four out of five college students drink alcohol, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. However, if you suspect signs of alcohol or drug abuse or academic problems, make sure your student knows about counseling resources available to them through school and their health insurance policy.
You may be out of sight, but a study conducted by Brigham Young University shows that parents have great influence on their child’s likelihood of involvement with drugs, alcohol and risky sexual activity even after their child leaves for college. Continue to gently share your values regarding relationships, sex, alcohol and drug use.
Remember your student is coming into adulthood, so speak with them on an adult level, providing facts and empowering them to distinguish between good and bad decisions when it comes to their behavior, health and safety.
Also, don’t drag out a conversation. Talk for a few minutes with open communication, then go on to a lighter subject. This gives them a chance to absorb the conversation without feeling overwhelmed or tuning you out. You may be surprised when your son or daughter turns to you on their own accord for guidance.
Take mental health seriously
Another potential hazard to college students is psychological issues. A new academic and social setting, a difficult schedule and taking on adult responsibilities can put a lot of stress on a student. Young women and men may show symptoms of mental distress under these circumstances. According to the American Psychological Association , 41.6 percent of students suffer from anxiety and more than 35 percent have some form of depression. These conditions should be taken seriously, as they can be life-threatening if not treated.
If your child seems overly stressed or depressed for more than a few days, talk to him or her about what’s going on and listen. Ask your child to share his or her feelings with you or another trusted person. Encourage your child to use campus counseling services or make an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible.
Shame or fear people will find out is one barrier preventing young adults from receiving help. Reassure him or her that their feelings are not unusual considering the stress they are under, and when they seek help, everything will be kept confidential.
There are some great new resources for time-deprived college students, including telemedicine, text therapy or mental health apps. You might want to see what options are available through your child’s health insurance or school, and suggest some easy, tech focused solutions as a first step to getting help.
Sadly, an alarming number of college students consider “ending it all.” Of those who do die by suicide, as many as 90 percent were not receiving counseling through school resources.
Even if your student is in the dorms, they may be managing their own out of pocket expenses for the first time. The reality of not having all the amenities of home will hit them pretty quick. Most must live within a budget to know how many times they can eat off campus or buy gas or incidentals. If they live in independent housing, timely payments must be made for rent and utilities. They’ll need to stick to a budget while living on their own.
We helped our son make a budget on an excel spreadsheet before leaving for school, not just for daily living, but to see how much he needed to earn over the summer to contribute to next year’s expenses, which we matched. If he chooses not to work, he would not receive as much support.
Families have vastly different financial circumstances, but the take away for student budgeting is to set a pattern for adult life to be able to independently manage finances.
How to be supportive and still be a parent
I wanted to circle back to our son wanting to quit his difficult university program weeks into his first semester.
In other situations, we had let him come to his own conclusions. However, quitting a program he had worked hard to get into, and forgoing scholarships and grants, was a big step. After a few conversations to really grasp why he was struggling, we felt he was just a little overwhelmed and perhaps a bit lonely, and with time, he would adjust.
We were pretty firm in expressing that we didn’t think he had given the program enough of a chance, and we wanted him to stick it out. Because of the commitments in place, we pointed out that a better time to make a big change would be with the following school year. We reminded him of resources available at school, and kept in close contact. Ultimately, the decision was still his, but providing a little extra guidance and follow-up support helped him endure the initial rough patches.
Allowing your child to learn to be an adult can be a challenge. Maintain positive, open lines of communication, and try to find little ways to let your student know you are thinking of them, are there to listen to concerns and support their success.