Back to School: Advice for parenting a college student
July 28, 2012
Emory University psychology professor Marshall Duke has helped ease the separation process for parents and their newly minted college students with a tremendously popular Emory orientation seminar on “Parenting a College Student: What To Expect.” He's delivered his tried-and-true advice to thousands of parents for more than 25 years. Below are Duke's directions on how to navigate the complex changes in family dynamics:
• Think about your parting words.
"The closing words between parents and children are crucial. Whatever wisdom you have to offer, whether it is 'I love you,' 'I'm behind you,' 'I'm proud of you,' say it. If you can't express yourself verbally, write your thoughts down and mail the letter to your child immediately after you arrive home. Your children will remember your messages and hold on to them."
• Your lives will change.
"Younger siblings may be quite happy to see the older child leave home. I've heard stories of younger children who usually have stayed in their rooms suddenly appearing at the dinner table. If the college-bound student is your youngest, you'll begin to reestablish a one-on-one relationship with your spouse after years of parenting."
• You won't be able to wait for them to come home — or leave.
"Your child will arrive home with a whole new set of habits, particularly when it comes to food and sleep. When my daughter came home from college for the first time she decided to call her friend at 10:30 p.m. one evening. When I expressed surprise, she said, 'Oh, I know it's early, but I want to catch her before she makes plans with someone else.'"
• Don't change your child's room.
"The student's room is 'home base' – try not to change it very much during his or her first semester away. Freshmen in particular can go through some very difficult times, passing exams, establishing new friendships, surviving in a setting where they are not 'top dog,' and often fearing that admissions has made a mistake — that they do not really belong at college. Give them a 'safe haven.'"
• When a problem arises, "move like your feet are stuck in molasses."
"The temptation is to intervene when a child calls home with a problem. Remember that many resources exist at college to help students cope with various situations. Express support, but give your children time to solve their own problems—it will ultimately benefit them. Colleges have many safety nets, including resident advisers who are trained to identify and handle just about any problem you can imagine."
• Don't expect the same grades in college that the students got in high school.
"Perfect 4.0's (or higher, with AP grades) are commonplace in high school. Very few students make it through a challenging and varied college curriculum with a perfect 4.0. At Emory, for example, there might be only one or two out of a graduating class of 1100+. Expect early GPA's to be low and later ones to be better. Brand new college freshmen are actually 'successful high school students who are at college.' They need time and experience to learn how to be 'college students at college.' This takes at least one semester. Be patient and understanding."
• Hold out for junior year.
"As freshmen, students tend to highlight everything in their textbooks because everything seems important. Sophomores highlight several lines on a page as they begin to zero in on the heart of the matter. Juniors just highlight a line here or there. Seniors sometimes highlight nothing — they just write critical comments in the margin and cite other sources of reference. By the child's junior year you will realize you're dealing with an expanded and exciting mind. Be patient in waiting to see the effects of the college experience."