After a dozen years of practice, you may feel like a pro at the back-to-school routine, checking lists, filling out forms, and otherwise preparing your child to start another academic year. But sending a child to college is different. There are still lists and forms aplenty, which can distract families from considering the emotional transitions with this milestone. Understanding normal development—and a little about how to respond when things go awry—can help ease the changes for everyone.
1. College students are emerging adults. They are not teenagers and they are not yet fully adult. As first described by psychologist Jeffrey Arnett less than twenty years ago, this developmental stage exists in industrialized societies where marriage, parenthood, and often, financial independence are delayed. This “in-between” time is characterized by exploration of diverse possible life paths. Studies suggest that emerging adults don’t view achieving adulthood in terms of settling into a career or into marriage, but through qualities of character: “accepting responsibility for oneself and making independent decisions.” Be supportive of the ways your child is gradually figuring out what this means for him. Don’t focus conversations solely on concrete goals like figuring out a career path or her grades. Help him fine-tune decision-making, and allow him to take responsibility.
2. They won’t need your help, and they will need your help. College students don’t like to be told what to do, but they’re used to you taking care of them. And to become competent adults, they really do need to learn how to make their own decisions about class selection, choosing friends and romantic partners, and life direction...which doesn’t mean they don’t want or need you to weigh in. Try to follow their lead about when and how. They may need advice on how to fill a prescription or how to even get a prescription, but better to walk them through the steps than to call the doctor for them. Indicate your faith in their abilities to figure things out, while answering direct questions as appropriate. Try to resist doing for them the things they can do for themselves, but let them know you are there for the things they can’t. No matter how they act, they really do care about what you think.
3. No news is good news. Don’t call the police the first time your student doesn’t answer your call. Remember she is much more likely to respond to text messages. Discuss expectations about how frequently you’d like to be in touch, but realize that they’re off on a new adventure that occupies them 24/7, so they think about home less often than you think about them. That’s normal. If you wait until they contact you, they’re likely to be more talkative and connected. It’s more common for students to call their parents when they’re upset about something, so you may hear more complaints. Don’t assume this means they’re miserable all the time.
4. Certain risk behaviors peak during the college years. Risk-taking used to characterize adolescence, but these days, binge drinking and unprotected sex are more common after age 18. 40% of college students binge drink, and the abuse of prescription and illegal drugs on campus has been rising. When parents stay informed and initiate open, honest conversations about how to stay healthy, acknowledging both the appeal and the dangers of substances, students tend to do better. A good online resource is http://www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov/ Avoid scare tactics, and also discuss responsible sex and consent. Yes, it can be uncomfortable, but worse is to pretend your child won’t be exposed to difficult situations on campus. Over time, these conversations deepen your connection and demonstrate you understand your child’s reality.
5. If your child shows signs of significant emotional distress, take it seriously and be compassionate. Over half of college students report experiencing “overwhelming anxiety,” and more than a third felt “so depressed it was hard to function” within the past year. Much of this is normal developmentally, but many emotional disorders also first appear before age 24. Early intervention leads to better outcomes, so if your child is persistently anxious, depressed, unable to complete academic tasks, or feels persistently lonely, encourage him to seek help. Many students avoid treatment because they are ashamed of letting their parents down by being less than perfect, or they fear worrying their parents. Make sure they know you love them for who they are, not for what they achieve—and that ignoring emotional issues is what derails achievement, rather than having those issues in the first place.
Of course, the thing to most prepare for is that it’s impossible to prepare for every situation that will arise. Flexibility—and a sense of humor—can go a long way toward easing the adjustment.
Doris Iarovici, M.D., is a psychiatrist with over 20 years of experience working with college students. She is the author of Mental Health Issues and the University Student.
The start of a new school year is upon us, and our authors have taken to the blog to discuss the past, present, and future of the education landscape in the United States and abroad. From administrative imperatives, to advice for parents, to student mental wellness, our authors will examine education from every angle. Check back with us for more from our JHU Press back-to-school series.