How Parents Can Cause Their College Students Pain, and How to Avoid It

My career as a clinical psychologist has afforded me the opportunity to learn so much about the vast landscape of human experiences. Many are things that I, too, have dealt with. Things like anxiety, parenting, relationships, grief, identity and more.

I have the privilege of helping people navigate big transitions in life as well. I am currently living a huge transition – one I have supported clients through for years – but had no personal experience of: My child graduating high school and preparing for college. This process is A LOT for some parents (myself included!). Easier for others.

What I know: There is one common thread and we all want to help our kids and do our best to support them.

When I began my career, I did so with college students in college counseling centers. I remember a few pivotal things I would like to offer now. This is not to shame anyone or call you out – merely some experiences students shared that felt painful. I offer now, because as the saying goes, “when we know better, we do better.”

Here are five ways parents can improve their relationship with their college students. (Shutterstock: wavebreakmedia)

How parents can make things less painful for their college students

1) DO NOT re-do your kid’s room for at least the first year

Kids need to know they have THEIR home/room to head back to. Not a guest room, or a gym where their old bed is. So many kids were hurt by this – and never felt like they could say anything. They felt like their parents were so eager for them to go. It broke my heart.

I know each family has specific situations. If the rule in your house is that the oldest gets the big room then so be it! If this is you – just be sure to discuss with your young adult who is heading to college. Ask things like “What’s it like to know your little sister will get your room?” “Is there a way to make it any easier for you?” And if they deny being bothered, you could say “I think I would feel sad if I knew my room was sort of ‘gone.’ It’s okay if you feel that.”

Opening a conversation can be really supportive – even if they don’t attach to it. You send the message you’re aware of their potential struggle and that you care.

2) Discuss how to handle hard things

If you have an aging pet, and older/ill family member, have a discussion with your child about how to share news with them, if necessary. Many of my clients had pets die while they were at school, and parents didn’t tell them until they returned home. They didn’t want to “stress them out” or “distract them from their studies.”

This was CRUSHING to kids – whatever the reasoning was behind it. Something like, “You know, we don’t anticipate anything – but if Rover gets ill or needs care, or needs something more serious, how would you like us to share this with you? Would you like to be part of our decision making team? Would you want to come home if possible?” Some kids want to know right away, others would ask to hear on a weekend, or when they come home. What do you think you’d want?”

Some kids DO want you to handle it – the point is: Ask and know so you don’t have to scramble in already challenging circumstances. Its better for all involved.

The same goes for grandparents, etc. “You know Grandma has had health challenges. Would you want to know if she is in the hospital? Would you like to hear only if its very serious? What do you think?” Your kid may not know what they want – and they may feel overwhelmed (especially right now!).

If they don’t want to talk about it – that’s okay too. “I can see you’d rather not think about this. I get that…it’s no fun to think of it – but just know we want to make sure you hear things or are notified of things in a way that feels respectful of you.” Again, we are planting a seed that will bloom later.

3) If there are going to be family changes tell your students before they leave

Many students also shared that shortly after starting school, their parents advised they were separating. If this is you – I recommend telling them before they leave, or at least after their first semester. The sense that “everything is falling apart at home” is a real experience for many students. They then feel like they aren’t allowed to add to the heavy load at home, and can feel all alone and stop sharing with parents.

4) Finally, don’t harp on being grateful

Maybe you didn’t get to go to school they way they do, or maybe you’re working your butt off to pay for school. Do not demand gratitude. “You should be so happy I do all this for you.” “I didn’t get this opportunity, so don’t blow it.” These kinds of statements have a shameful undertone that harms our kids. That kind of statement does nothing but damage your relationship with your child. Being excited about things is great – but don’t keep pointing out how lucky or grateful a kid should be. The message ends up being “You’re not measuring up to my expectation of how you should behave.” This is a feeling that stays with kids.

We don’t want them to leave home feeling this. Also, if they are scared, worried and anxious about this big transition, forced gratitude is just anothing “thing” they have to do to keep things calm. It’s an added pressure they don’t need. I hope this helps someone!

A final note is this: Whatever happens – and if you’ve already engaged in one of the behaviors above, it’s okay. If your child is 30 and you redecorated their room, have a conversation about it. “I was reading this post on G&F and they said redecorating a teen’s room when they leave for college is a bad idea and I realized that I did that. What was that like for you? I’m sorry I made that decision. I can now understand why that would be hard.”

Repair is one of the most important things in relationships. You can model it no matter how old the situation. I wish you good luck and lots of Kleenex to Senior Moms!

More Great Reading:

14 Dos and Don’ts the Summer Before Freshman Year of College

There are so many feelings around this transition…if you’re a person that benefits from journaling, take a look at this journal created by the author for this bittersweet time.

Journal for empty nesting moms by Traci Lowenthal PsyD)
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