How to Stay Close (But Keep a Healthy Distance) to Your College-Bound Kid

Around the country parents are sending away their child to college for the first time, and they must learn to cope with adjusting to a new role in their children’s lives.

In Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”, Patricia Arquette portrays the parent of two college-bound kids. In her performance, she expresses not only the feeling of loss of having both kids flee the nest, but she questions what to do with her life after so many milestones have passed.

While her son Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is excited to go off to college, mom is left feeling lonely and wondering about her future. “This is the worst day of my life,” she says dramatically. “I knew this day was coming, I just didn’t know you were going to be so happy to be leaving.”

The College-Bound Parent

More connected than previous generations, parents of millennials struggle with how to give space to their college-bound kids. While a resounding majority of parents expect their kids to obtain an undergraduate degree, seeing a child off to college raises a mix of emotions for parents of college-bound kids.

The kids are often more excited about the separation than the parents. In one important way, you’re beaming with pride. Hours of homework done, applications to colleges completed, and high school graduation a distant blur even though it was only a few months ago. But also, like the Mom in “Boyhood,” you can expect to feel loss, loneliness, anxiety, and an acute feeling of what-do-I-do-next.

Realize They’re Not Gone

On a recent college move-in day, Lisa, mother of a newly minted college freshman, places the last cardboard box on top of her daughter’s luggage chest in her new dorm room overlooking the college’s football stadium. Two older brothers check out the closet space, while grandpa pulls out his granddaughter’s hanging clothes from a folded plastic bag. After the din of excitement abates and the goodbyes are said, Lisa confides that “It was so hard to leave her.”

But evidence suggests that kids are opting to stay closer to home than ever before. Some live at home, with parents or grandparents, while others live on campus.

In fact, it is more likely that a college student lives at home than those not enrolled in college. No matter if your child is studying abroad, living at home, or living in a nearby dormitory, keep in mind that the whole reason you raised her to be college-bound in the first place is to gain a sense of independence.

How to Stay Connected

Kids are increasingly more connected to their parental units. Students are in contact with their parents, according to one researcher, 13.4 times per week. That’s a lot of texting, phone calls, Skype calls, Google Hangout requests, and conversations on cell phones while walking across the quad to class.

Students report that they like staying in contact with their parents and parents like knowing the ins-and-outs of their children’s collegiate lives. But too much involvement from parents can hinder student learning and growth.

Ever since John Bowlby introduced the concept of attachment theory, we know that nurturing healthy attachments between parent and child begins at an early age, but sometimes parents forget that the ultimate goal of being a parent is to slowly help the child become an independent adult. Negotiating new roles means both parent and child have to learn to be apart from one another while continuing to keep the bond even when far away.

Maintain Boundaries

Connectedness goes further than just digital communication, and in fact, the rise of digital connectedness has made it easier for parents to swoop in and help their kids. Professors complain of parents who call to inquire why their son got a C in chemistry. Admissions counselors talk about parents who arrive a week before orientation to help their child adjust to a new city.

According to psychologist Barbara K. Hofer in the book “The iConnected Parent”, one of out five students report sending home papers to mom and dad to edit or proofread.

It’s essential to realize that your child may not need you at every critical juncture. Stay connected to your college kid, but realize that part of the experience of going to college is making decisions and learning from them. You cannot be there to instruct her on every decision she makes, be it going out instead of studying for a test, or overcharging on a credit card for an unnecessary purchase.

Secure Home Base

Children who come from secure and safe households are more likely to take risks — but this is because they have a feeling of security to fall back on at home. Risk doesn't necessarily mean risky behavior. Children of supportive parents may gain valuable intrinsic learning but not ace every test. Anxious children of the infamous helicopter parent may retreat to their dorm room and miss out on ultimately rewarding opportunities college provides.

The best thing a parent can do is to provide the security of a homebase, but let the child take the first step to call upon you when needed. Provide the security they need, but allow their absence to foster a new sense of purpose in you.

Make It Up As You Go Along

“Boyhood” (a movie that deserves a separate post) is a good movie for parents of college-bound kids to watch together with their kids when they come home to do the laundry. When Mason asks his father (Ewan McGregor) for advice, he says being an adult is making it up as you go along. What he meant is that life at every moment can seize you. After significant milestones, like emptying the nest, parents not only carve out a new space for themselves, but go through the painful, but ultimately rewarding process of becoming the parent of a flourishing young adult. In the “making it up part," you'll change too.

Sources:

Bowlby, J. (1997). Attachment. London: Pimlico.

The Daily Number (2012, February 27). Most parents expect their children to attend college. Retrieved online from The Pew Research Center.

Darling, N. (2010, August 31). Can parents help college students too much? stop circling the helicopters. Let your kids GO. Retrieved online from Psychology Today.

Darling, N. (2012, October 24). Is your parenting psychologically controlling? Good parenting asks kids to DO things, not think or feel them. Retrieved online from Psychology Today.

Fry, R. (2013, August 1). A Rising share of young adults live in their parents’ home. Retrieved online from The Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends.

Hofer, B. K., & Moore, A. S. (2010). The iConnected parent: Staying close to your kids in college (and beyond) while letting them grow up. New York, NY: Free Press.

Hofer, B. (2011, May 20). Pressure to text mom. Retrieved online from The New York Times.

Ramsey, M.A., et. al. (2013, October). College students' use of communication technology with parents: comparisons between two cohorts in 2009 and 2011. Retrieved online from The US National Library of Medicine.

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