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Hold on Loosely

A parent’s guide to college transition.

Karen Titus Trewin
Source: Karen Titus Trewin

As July slowly inches toward August – a month that will mark the beginning of college for many thousands of young people – parents may face a beehive of conflicting emotions. On the one hand, “senior summer” presents significant challenges related to such things as family rules (e.g., curfews), mental states (stress, anxiety and depression) and behaviors (such as underage drinking and other drug use).

On the other hand, parents, maybe especially those not yet familiar with onboarding children at college or those with first-generation students, can experience anxiety of their own, spawning a plethora of questions about how to best support their child (Wallace, 2018).

Of course, there exist volumes of advice eager to help parents. Speaking at a succession of “accepted students days,” I often summed up those pointers by citing the lyrics of a well-known 38 Special song.

Just hold on loosely
But don't let go
If you cling too tightly
You're gonna lose control

Your baby needs someone to believe in
And a whole lot of space to breathe in

Easier said than done? Probably. After all, for today’s college students, the experience may bear little resemblance to that of their parents or even of older siblings.

Good news can be found in the fact that, by and large, Mom and/or Dad get the first shot at preparing their child for the coming transition. Here are a few pointers to consider (Wallace, 2014).

  • Recognize that change is occurring not only for your student but also for you and any other family members, including siblings still at home.
  • Express confidence that your student is ready, willing and able to successfully transition to the college environment.
  • Anticipate unspoken questions, both yours (Will he succeed academically? How will she fare socially? What choices will he make about eating, sleep, and exercise? How will she handle the freedom of being on her own and the decisions she will face about substance use and sexual behavior?) and theirs (Will I fit in and find a group I’ll be comfortable with? How will I find the right balance between work and play? Can I keep up academically?).

Perhaps most important for parents to keep in mind is that they will continue to have significant influence in the lives of their children even after they have left for college.

And that’s a good thing.

According to The Jed Foundation, a collaborator at the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), emotional preparedness is as important as, or more important than, academic prowess. To that point, a Harris Poll of 1,502 first-year college students conducted on behalf of JED, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, and The Jordan Porco Foundation (also a collaborator at CARE) found, “Emotional preparedness – defined by the organizations as the ability to take care of oneself, adapt to new environments, control negative emotions or behavior and build positive relationships – is a major factor to students’ success during their first year of college” (JED, 2015).

Alarmingly, JED also found that those students surveyed reported the following (Set to Go, 2015).

  • 45 percent felt that “it seems like everyone has college figured out but me.”
  • 60 percent wish they had gotten more help with emotional preparation for college.

Bad news.

But hope can be found in an important JED initiative, “Set to Go.” Which, among other things, helps prepare college-bound students to plan for mental health care and managing stress (JED, 2019).

Is it any wonder that in an era when the venerable Parents League of New York publishes a "guide" to Preschool Admissions, students, from an early age, may face unprecedented challenges and stressors (PLNY, 2019)? And that’s before we get to the rather ridiculous college application and admissions process.

Then there’s college itself.

Reflecting on his first-year experience at Tufts University, Adam Rosen, a student member of the national advisory board at CARE, shared with me what he views as three broad areas that require navigation: Interpersonal, Personal and Environmental.

On the interpersonal front, Adam reflected on arriving at Tufts with few friends from home but immediately befriending a “massive” number of fellow students, not necessarily through clubs or sports teams but rather because of the simple cohesiveness of his dorm mates. With regard to his personal journey on campus, Adam offered, “It really does afford a huge opportunity to set off on your own and ‘find yourself.’” He added, “I can’t tell you how many people found their passion once they started college.” To that end, he advised trying out “any and every club” and taking classes in a wide number of disciplines. Adam said, “College is not a set track, it should be a scattershot, throwing everything you can at the wall until something sticks.” Finally, with regard to the environmental issues, Adam noted that significant shift from home to dorm life, citing it as one of the biggest changes from high school. Of the latter, he said, “This elicits a shift from nonstop responsible advice, to some (to put it lightly) worse influences. Most students will be sympathetic when you say you need to work. It’s just a matter of turning down the invite to the party or studying instead of playing video games with friends. It all boils down to personal responsibility. A lot of decisions you make are yours to make alone.”

Sage advice from someone who’s weathered the transition from high school in California to the first year of college in Massachusetts. Perhaps worthy of passing along.

What else can parents do … or not do? The following, says Sharon Sevier in an article for NBC News Learn’s, another CARE collaborator (Sevier, 2015).

  • Do NOT solve their problems.
  • Do not call the school (unless it’s about a tuition bill).
  • Give them their space.
  • Let them find their place.
  • Enforce your rules at home.
  • Demand respect.
  • Do not cave.

Speaking to those last few points, Richard Enemark, Ph.D., longtime private school head and former executive director of the Louis August Jonas Foundation, told me, “Too often the ills of freshman year – binge drinking, sexual promiscuity, indifferent morals, cruelty, and bullying – are born of a college life that forgets the lessons of 18 years of home life. If you remain a presence to your student, not a helicopter parent hovering above but a steady guide and always-available counselor, you will be doing your child the greatest service.”

Holding on (loosely) but not letting go.


Barnes, D., Carlisi, J. and J. Peterik. (1981). Hold on loosely. Wild-Eyed Southern Boys. 38 Special. (16 July 2019).

CARE. (2019). Center for Adolescent Research and Education. (16 July 2019).

JED. (2019). Set to go. (16 July 2019).

JED. (2015). Students who feel emotionally unprepared for college more likely to report poor academic performance and negative college experience. The Jed Foundation. October 8, 2015. (16 July 2019).

PLNY (2019). Preschool admissions. Parents League of New York. (16 July 2019).

Set to Go. (2015). First-year college experience. The JED Foundation, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and the Jordan Porco Foundation. (16 July 2019).

Sevier, S. (2015). Pointers for parents: letting your college freshman go. Parent NBC News Learn. August 31, 2015.… (16 July 2019).

Wallace, S. (2018). A user’s guide to the first year of college. Psychology Today. March 20, 2018.… (16 July 2019).

Wallace, S. (2017). Tides, timing and the college admissions process. HuffPost. February 3, 2017.… (16 July 2019).

Wallace, S. (2014). Land of hopes and dreams. Psychology Today. August 4, 2014.… (16 July 2019).

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