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How to keep up with your son or daughter in college without being intrusive

Since the 4th of July stores have been stocked with back to school supplies, including the college dorm kind: dry erase boards, shower caddy, flip flops, fan, electronics, and of course, coffee and ramen noodles. In the coming weeks, many college-bound students will be packing up their cars to leave home and live among their peers for the next four or more years. For them, it is mostly an exciting time, a time of new beginnings. Parents, however, will go about their everyday lives with a piece of them living away for the first time, reminiscing about their child’s life, facing their own aging or the emptying of the nest. For 18 years these parents loved, protected and sacrificed for this child who is now waving goodbye to them. This will be an emotional, bittersweet time, one of many they experience as their child moves from one transition to another and grows up and away.

Child development experts consider the developmental tasks of this time in a young adult’s life as establishing their own identity, sense of self and independence. During the college years, like the toddler years, parents can again expect to witness their child discovering new things, experimenting, falling down, and seeking them out while simultaneously asserting their independence. Parents, remember toddler speak: “me do”? The young adult version: “Don’t tell me…”. These young adults will face different expectations, responsibilities and challenges. It is not your job parents, to rescue them, solve their problems or do for them. Rather, just as a toddler learning to walk, you will need to let go, and be there for support, encouragement and guidance. This time however, your role may be from miles, rather than inches, away. Parents often don’t anticipate the challenge of wanting to be involved in their child’s life while allowing him or her some freedom and space to make decisions, succeed and make mistakes.

Here are some tips for parents to stay involved without being intrusive:

  • Establish expectations with your child about how and how often you will be in contact. Some students prefer frequent contact, especially at the start of the year, and others do not. Phone, texting, email, videoconferencing? Figure it out before he/ she leaves for campus.

  • Express genuine interest in what is happening in your child’s academic and social life, and this may be the hard part: minimize the criticism of his/her choices. Now that your child is away from home, he/she will be more likely to want to talk to you if it doesn’t always involve disapproval or a lecture.

  • Treat your child with the respect deserving of a fellow adult, even if he/she is only slowly maturing into that role. They will be treated more as adults than children on campus and they will come to expect that.

  • Be available as a listening ear if your child is having trouble. It is not swoop in and take over. Rather, it can be disempowering, robbing them of opportunities to problem solve and develop coping skills. One caveat: You know your child. If you are concerned about his or her adjustment or functioning, take advantage of on-campus resources such as the department of residence life or the campus counseling center.

Finally, parents need to take care of themselves during this transition as well. It is natural to focus your energy on your college- launched child but how about you? Take time and pay attention to how you are feeling and your own coping. Reach out for support if needed. For some reading suggestions on this topic, see my recent post on Facebook: Appoquinimink Counseling Services, LLC.

"There is always a moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in." ~ Graham Green

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