By Lynn L. Brandsma, Ph.D.
A quick search for books on how to parent college-age students results in a mere handful of choices compared to the endless books on how to raise a toddler or school-age child. Actually, one can find numerous parenting advice books all the way up through the teenage years. Understandably, it can often seem that we are on our own in figuring out this parenting phase of the college years.
I do believe that nobody knows their children better than parents. But we parents can forget that our children evolve just as we, too, continue to evolve throughout our lives. We need to give them the space to mature, to grow, and to change. If we take a step back and watch them, with all the pain that comes from seeing them sometimes fail and fall, we can come to appreciate them on their own terms.
For some, it can be difficult to move to this new phase of parenting, whereas for others it is a seamless transition. For some parents, it can be a lonely process, and for others they find more time for work, friends, and hobbies. And of course, our students vary in their transitions to college. Some call or text their parents frequently; some seldom do. Some only share the negative things they experience, while some only share the positive. Some only talk about the social aspects, while others only share their academic experiences. With all these differences, there is not a one size fits all prescription for supporting our college-age children. However, I do believe there are some general guidelines that can help guide the way.
Although parents may know their children better than anyone, including sometimes the children themselves, often the very best way to know how best to support your child from afar is to ask them. A simple and direct “I want to support you in the best way I can. What does that look like to you?” may do wonders to start a conversation. They might not know immediately how to answer the question, but it will often prompt them to think about it.
Another way to show support is just to listen, suppressing the temptation to give advice or problem-solve. Listening is a skill that is easy on paper but can be very challenging in practice. I find myself wanting to give advice more often than I should. Often, our college age children just need a parent or guardian to be a sounding board. In talking through things, they just might be able to address a problem they might be facing. Allowing our children to talk through situations without well-intentioned parental input can be a wonderful way to foster their own problem-solving skills.
The transition to college can be difficult for some students. I know how hard it is as a parent if your child is homesick, anxious, and slow to adjust to college life. As a professor, I always had an open-door policy and encouraged new students to come talk with me about any struggles with adjustment. My message was almost always the same: give it time. With time and support, I watched most students find their groove.
If you have a child who rarely calls or texts, I’ve found it may be helpful to send them short videos or photos of things from home, often accompanied by “thought of you when I saw this” or “made your favorite dessert tonight.” Don’t expect anything in return, but don’t stop reaching out either. I know sometimes it gets annoying when we don’t hear from our students, but it doesn’t mean they don’t want to hear from us. A funny meme or a funny joke can uplift in the same way that finding a letter from home when opening our mailboxes back in the day did for us.
I will close the same way I started; there is no one “correct” way to support all children. Let them find their own way the best you can and embrace the journey of watching them.