A Letter to Parents of Children Heading to College
Coping with the next stage of parenting.
Posted Aug 01, 2017
Dear Parents of Children Transitioning to College,
There are many developmental psychologists and educators who describe childhood and adolescence as a series of "stages" or "plains" of development. In each one, youth typically face certain physical, emotional, and social changes. Having worked in a Montessori middle school for two years as an administrator, I had the chance to observe pre-teens and early teens as they began that often-difficult period of change. As we all know, physical changes are confusing for girls and boys. Emotional changes are dramatic. Social changes often cause youth to choose their peers over their parents as the center of their social sphere. As you likely remember from just a few years ago, it can be a really difficult time for youth.
However, working as an administrator in that middle school I also gained a unique perspective. As the students struggled with this new developmental stage, their parents seemed to be struggling right along with them. Parents worked to meet their new teen's constantly changing needs and wants, only to find themselves hurt by rude comments or efforts by their children to push them away. Suddenly, these parents were facing the fact that they had a new challenge ahead of them: they had to provide just as much love and support as they ever had (sometimes more) but were often going to receive far less love and appreciation in return. This was when the realization hit me that parents go through their own developmental stages that mirror those of their own children. As their children became young adults, so too did the parents have to become parents of young adults.
Of course, I share this story because I would guess that, for many of you, the departure of your children for college marks a new stage of development for both them and you. For some, this is the first college-age child leaving the home. For others, this may be the last of your children to leave. Whatever the circumstance, it is a time when many among you will struggle with the sadness of their departure from the home. Additionally, it is a time when many will work to find the balance between being a loving, caring, and protective parent while allowing your child to make important decisions independently. Without a doubt, the coming departure represents a new period of your lives as parents as surely as it represents a new period in the lives of your children.
Not yet having reached this transition as a parent myself, I won't pretend to fully understand your position. However, as an educator who has worked with parents and students extensively at this transition moment, I wanted to offer this perspective during this parental transition.
Your role as parents hasn't ended, it's just changing. Your child still needs the love, support, foresight, and perspective you can share. Here are a few key steps you can take:
- Let Go—Whether your student is leaving home to head to campus, taking a gap year, or living at home during continued studies or work, it's important to allow your child to be an adult. Yes, this will come with mistakes and bumps in the road, but those are where important life lessons live. There is a balance to be found between providing a long enough leash that students have freedom in their decisions, and staying involved enough that we can pull back before they head over a cliff. What constitutes a cliff? A high risk decision that could result in irreparable harm.
- Share Your Experiences—Think back to your transition to college or adulthood and find stories to help share the perspective you would have benefited from. Knowing that your parents went through a similar period in their lives, experienced the same sense of confusion or self-righteousness, and even made mistakes can provide immeasurable comfort to students, particularly if they hear the lessons learned. Even if the message doesn't hit home immediately, your child is likely to hear you and incorporate this into her learning process.
- Identify Resources—Find and share resources that your child can use to take ownership of their own challenges. For mental health challenges, share resources from the Jed Foundation or point to support services on campus. Help your child identify an adult mentor that isn't family who can provide support throughout their college years, particularly with the tough questions around sex, substance use, and identity.
- Be Ready for Change—The transition to college and adulthood is a period of enormous change for adolescents. And, that process often comes with experimentation related to behavior, identity, and ways of communicating. Be patient. Listen and observe, knowing that whatever the state of affairs today, it will likely be different tomorrow. Learning and growth is neither linear nor immediate. Be supportive in the moment.
As you move through this period, know that it will likely be challenging for you, just as it's challenging for your child.