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For Parents Newsletter|Division of Student Affairs

The Best Years of Their Lives

by David Cozzens

So your son or daughter is going to college. You have worked the past 17 years getting him/her this far. What can you do now? Here are some friendly suggestions based on what we know traditional-age students will experience in college, and how parents can be most helpful.

What is the college experience?

While the college years are exciting, stimulating, and wonderful, they are also a time of enormous stress interspersed with confusion, uncertainty, and loneliness. It is very important your child learn to navigate successfully through these years and feelings so he/she attains the sense of competence that is the foundation of self-esteem and confidence.

The change from the first 17 or 18 years at home with parents to living in a new environment with new rules and lots of different options, deadlines, and expectations is the definition of "sea change" and is therefore very stressful.

Even though they may act like they know who they are and where they are going, we know that most students are looking for identity (who I am), independence (how to "do" life), and intimacy (how to connect and work with others).  These are the crucial developmental processes that are at the core of your child's growth during the college years. Another significant growth edge is learning to live interdependently with others and to constantly consider how one's decisions impact others.

If students seem confused, it is because they are confused about life and all its options. If they seem moody, it is because this is a time of highs and lows. If they seem lonely, it is because they will often feel alone in their journey. If they seem angry or sullen, it is because they are scared and it is sometimes harder to allow fear to show than anger.  

There are at least three activities that students will try to balance during their college years: study, sleep, and socializing. It is their ability to strike a healthy balance among these three that will help them succeed. 

Students need to take some risks as they continue to learn about themselves.  Without some failure, some mistakes, they do not learn about there limits or test their values. It is sometimes difficult for you to allow your child to experience the "pain" of his or her errors, but it is the very practice of these feelings that strengthens the student's ability to manage life's current and future complexities.  

How can parents be helpful?

The most helpful parents are those who listen, directly and indirectly express support, acknowledge their student's feelings, and allow him/her to generate options.  

  • You will need to allow your student his/her space.
  • If you have not already, start treating your son or daughter as an adult. It is important to respect your student as a separate, functioning, adult person (even though he or she sometimes may not act like one).
  • Communicate frequently from your end during the semester, but do not expect your student to do the same from his/her end.
  • Try to understand and empathize with what your student is going through.
  • Keep your sense of humor.
  • Let your student know that you are there for him/her, but let your child "struggle" so that he/she learns that you are confident in him/her while your student learns to be confident in him/herself.

"Letting go" is difficult, but it is crucial in your relationship with your child and in his or her healthy arrival at adulthood.

Graduates throwing their caps up into the air.

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