Mary Dell writes: Whew, congratulations, we survived month one! Since that memorable hug goodbye, we have spent the last few weeks trying to adjust to the absence of our college freshman. We miss them like crazy, long for their phone calls and are thrilled when they text! We follow the rules about not hovering and abide by the sacred parenting principle that states that NOW is the time to let our kids take the lead. But after we dropped them off at their dorms, does that mean we should drop off the face of the earth?
Parenting college freshman, especially during this first semester, is a hybrid activity. No question that we must respect the fact that our kids are living independent lives. But fully acclimating to college takes time and, while that process unfolds, parents should look for signs that either their child has adjusted and is thriving and or is truly struggling.
In her article, Parents of College Freshmen: Don’t Let Go Too Fast, psychotherapist, teacher and author, F. Diane Barth, identifies red flags: “Eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, failing grades and other difficulties don’t happen overnight and aren’t a sign that a young man or woman is inadequate or bad. They are, however, signs of trouble and require adult intervention…Do not be put off by the advice to ‘let go.’”
She writes that parents who are concerned about their college student:
hear from friends, books, and the internet (telling) them to let their adult youngsters figure things out for themselves….But surprisingly, there are other professional voices telling parents not to let go so fast. In 2007 George D. Kuh, an Indiana University professor, found that students whose parents were more involved were actually more successful at college than their “liberated” peers.
If you are, like us, trying to find the sweet spot in parenting your college kid, here are:
Nine Reasons Why You Should Call Your College Freshman
1. Schedule the Call
Make a plan to talk to your child weekly. Ask about his teachers, his roommate and other kids in the dorm. Ask about his weekend plans. If he bristles at what seems like an intrusion into his new-found independence, let him know that you want to stay in contact regularly, especially early on. As Barth writes:
Staying in touch is not by definition neurotic. It does not mean a parent cannot let go. It is an act of responsibility, a communication that you are letting go, but standing by to provide support and balance. And, as one colleague put it, “by listening to their voice on a weekly basis, you can tell how they’re doing – just as you could tell when you looked at their eyes when they were younger.”
2. Phone on the Weekend
Our kids learned how to drive only once they got behind the wheel. They will learn to drink with a cold one in their hand. Some kids already may have had painful lessons of being over-served while in high school; others will learn in college personally and/or by observing the behavior of other students. Schools try their hardest to get kids to understand about the downside of alcohol by mandating online awareness programs during the summer or at orientation. But painful learning can come with shots, kegs, or grain alcohol.
The results of this study, Protective Effects of Parent-College Student Communication During the First Semester of College found that “Encouraging parents to communicate with their college students, particularly on weekend days (Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays) could be a relatively simple, easily implemented protective process to reduce dangerous drinking behaviors.”
Researchers theorized that “First, there could be a direct effect such that when parents express their concern about excessive drinking and suggest strategies for reducing harm, the students consume less alcohol. There could also be an indirect effect whereby interaction with parents may remind the student of shared values, internalized norms, or the importance of longer-term goals.”
3. Share Contacts
If there is a problem and you are unable to reach your son and daughter who would you call? There is a number for the Dean of Students but that may feel like calling the president of a company if your office computer is broken. Ask your child for his roommate’s number and ask that he give him yours, in return. Assure your son that exchanging numbers does not mean you will be sending texts with smiley-face emojis to his new friend.
4. Discuss the Game Plan
There is no returning to high school days with curfews but ask about the weekend plans. Is your daughter going to a fraternity party or the football game and, most importantly, is there a buddy with whom she will walk back home? Ask her to text you or send an email once she is back in her dorm. When you get up at 7AM on a Saturday morning and see the email at 2AM, you will feel great relief. (Note: I am, admittedly, more on edge about campus safety issues in the wake of a disappearance of a classmate of my daughter’s. We asked our daughter to text us and, as long as we make no comments about the time the texts come in, she is willing.)
5. Provide Warmth
Kids have emerged from the group hug that defined their high school years but they have not yet had the shared experiences that create deep friendships. They are on a campus of strangers and the gulf in closeness will be felt most keenly right now. Until they have developed the new friendships, you can try to fill in the gap with regular phone calls, a shipment of homemade cookies or periodically texting video clips of the family dog back home, this last one guaranteed to garner a response.
6. Support School Work
College and high school are like night and day in terms of work demanded. Your child may be completely overwhelmed by the volume of reading, the length and number of papers, the complexity of tests. Help him avoid an academic train wreck by making academics part of the conversation. If there is a problem, discuss the options the school makes available – tutoring, advisors, study sessions.
7. Check the Calendar
The fall is filled with campus meetings and deadlines. Foreign study, Greek rush, second year housing and course selection. Check out the academic calendar online and put these on your list of things to discuss. Do not begin a sentence with “You should…” but instead try “Have you given any thought to…” Be aware of dates and deadlines in case there is something looming that your daughter might have overlooked.
8. Look for Signs of Poor Health
There is a bounty of food at your child’s fingertips and comfort eating risks unhealthy weight gain. Does he need some new athletic gear in a care package for extra motivation to schedule working out into his week?
9. Plan a Visit
Whether it is a formally organized Parents Weekend, a home football game, or a random weekend after midterms, try to visit your child in college this fall. There is nothing like seeing first hand how your son is faring with his roommate, whether he is stressed by his classes or if he has gained or lost weight. Plus, taking your child out to dinner – with or without a group of new friends – and inviting her to spend the night in a hotel room with you will be a welcome break from dorm life. It will also give you a chance to do a little on site, and not merely long-distance, mothering. At this time of family transition, there is not much that can top a real life hug!