You may not think so now, but you’ll survive it. You’re dreading the day that you leave your child at college, and you may even get through it without tears. But once their waving figure disappears from your rearview mirror, you’ll still want to know how they’re doing, you still want to stay in touch. What can parents do to help their first-year students adjust to college?
“It’s a big transition—leaving home, starting classes, the transition to adulthood,” says Sam Cochran, the director of University Counseling Service. “There will be plenty of challenges for your student, and they’ll need support.”
The phone is the natural thing to think of—you want to talk to your son or daughter, to hear their voice and know that when they tell you “I’m fine,” they sound like they really mean it. But Cochran suggests thinking carefully before you call.
“You don’t want to be too intrusive, so I’d lean toward hanging back a bit,” Cochran says. “This transition is a big step to independence and adulthood, and parents don’t want to do anything to undermine that.”
This is not to say that you shouldn’t contact your son or daughter. One of the most helpful things is to share your expectations for communication before he or she leaves.
“Set some ground rules about your expectations for contact,” Cochran says. “It’s often easier for them to call, than for you to find them in their rooms.”
Kate Fitzgerald, assistant director for Residence Life, echoes that thought.
“Let them know ‘I would like to hear from you once a week. Call me on Sunday night,’ ” Fitzgerald says. “Parents worry, and having a plan to hear that familiar voice once a week helps.”
A phone call once a week works for many families, but Cochran stresses that each parent-child relationship is different, and it’s okay to work out a plan that fits your family’s needs.
E-mail works well for many families.
“Student hours are totally different—they’re not always going to be in their rooms when you’re home from work and want to talk,” Fitzgerald says.
E-mail also is less intrusive. Your student can answer your queries when it’s convenient, even when they aren’t in their rooms. Many students check their e-mail between classes at stations provided by the Parents Association at the Iowa Memorial Union. Instant messaging is another popular way to stay in touch.
But what if you hear from your daughter often? Should you worry if your son calls home a lot?
“That’s fine,” Cochran says. “Be open to your student’s need to reconnect, even if it sometimes feels like too much. Typically there’s a kind of give-and-take, as students try out their independence and then need to refuel emotionally. They may initiate phone calls home to reconnect with the safety and support they’ve felt there. Don’t discourage this—it’s an element of providing them with support.”
Cochran says the same is true of visits home. And while Fitzgerald notes that students who stay on campus over the weekend tend to meet people more easily, she thinks leaving campus periodically is healthy.
“When you’re in the residence halls and your focus is academics and maybe a job and you have a big to-do list, it’s good to get away and reenergize,” she says.
While contact with home and high school friends is healthy, parents should note some red flags.
“I’d watch for things like falling behind in school work,” Cochran says. “Or if students seem to have a negative spin on the entire experience—‘I don’t like my classes, my professors are unfair, I hate my roommate’—or if they feel sad about returning to the residence hall and their friends here. These could be warning signs.”
Residence hall staff members learn to watch for warning signs. Beginning with the first floor meeting and throughout the semester, resident assistants (RAs) encourage students to take part in activities designed to help them get to know students in their residence hall and to learn about the resources and special-interest groups on campus.
“If a student is homesick, then an RA is trained to help them make a connection,” Fitzgerald says. “And if your student calls home and complains about a roommate problem, encourage them to seek out their RA, who can help them mediate conflicts. If the problem continues, hall coordinators also can be consulted.”
If a student is having an especially difficult time adjusting to campus life, RAs know to refer a student to University Counseling Service (UCS). That’s also appropriate for parents to do, if they’re sensing that their child needs some additional help.
“If you’re concerned about your student’s adjustment—you’re getting a lot of tearful phone calls or a student talks about wanting to quit and come home for example—parents can suggest a visit to UCS,” Cochran says. “Ask your student ‘Would you at least go once and get a second opinion on how your adjustment is coming?’ There are no charges for UCS services and counselors deal with these issues all the time. Often an initial visit will help your son or daughter learn about the kinds of support available at UCS and elsewhere on campus.”
If they’re concerned, parents can call and talk with residence hall or UCS staff. While the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) stipulates that staff may not share confidential information, parents should feel free to call and ask whether a particular pattern of behavior seems typical of the adjustment process or whether it’s something more.
For most students, the adjustment to college life may be circuitous, but it will eventually occur, and parental support can go a long way toward smoothing the way. And although e-mail, instant messaging, and cell phones are ways to connect with your child, there’s another technique that works when you want to say “I’m thinking of you.”
“If you stand by the mailboxes and watch, you get a clear idea of what mail means to students,” Fitzgerald says. “If parents want to make their kids’ day, send the occasional box of homemade cookies that they can share with their floor or just a note that lets them know you’re thinking of them. Students love technology, but they get very excited by U.S. mail.”
By Linzee Kull McCray