The College Transition

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Transitional Changes you might expect

By the time a student goes to college, most parents have already been a part of the profound changes that can occur in the teenage years. Most parents report that the experience of sending a son or daughter to college is associated with eagerness, worries, confusion, and hope. By the time the student actually takes that first step, some evidence of changes are already visible. The student becomes more independent, gains skills and confidence in new areas, and has experiences with a larger diversity of peer relationships. Ideally, the college years are a time when a student continues to mature and gain the knowledge necessary to lead a successful life. However, it can be very difficult to know what that might mean for you as a parent. Here are some examples of what you might go through:

“Help!”/ “Don’t tell me what to do!” One difficult part of adolescence in these times is confusion about when to be independent and when to rely on others. Unfortunately, the student might not even know that they are going through this confusion. It can be frustrating for a parent to go through this part of the growth process with their students, not knowing how to be helpful and receiving messages which are unclear or incomplete. In their confusion, the student might add to the uncertainty by changing rapidly – rejecting your help on Tuesday and actively seeking it on Wednesday. We’ve often heard about parents in great distress because their student predicted a poor outcome on an exam, but forgot to provide an update when the results were better than expected. Not surprisingly, the parent will have a very difficult time knowing when to help, when to step back, and/or how much to worry. Even worse, a parent might feel that it is time to help, but it can be very difficult to know what is the most helpful thing to do. Most of the time, the best thing for a parent to do is provide a steady, supportive emotional “home base” while recognizing that there will be ups and downs in students’ needs and expectations.

Try to follow the message that you received from your student as much as possible, and encourage them to work through a problem. While staying in contact with their experience of the difficulty, you can provide a lot of assistance as a person who believes in your student and is willing to be responsive to your student. You can go far as their “life coach” by helping them balance their thoughts and emotions to make their best decisions. Your actions will reinforce your words by letting them know that you respect their right to make a decision and that you will serve as an advisor when asked. We generally assume that students will make the best decisions possible in such an emotional context.

Another way to bolster the skills of your student is to look for opportunities to notice and appreciate the positive ways that they express their emerging adulthood. It means more than you might guess to a student for their family to recognize the progress they’re making and to be reminded that the success of the students is the success of the family. You might need to clarify with your student what they mean when they give you confusing messages, but this clarification is greatly assisted by a context of loving support.

“This is my decision.” It is completely natural for a parent to feel a high level of investment in their student’s decisions. Problems can arise, however, when parents are invested in decisions in a different way than the student, with different priorities than the student, or in different directions than the student. If it seems that the student is not assuming responsibility in a particular area, it can be very anxiety provoking or objectionable for the parent to leave the responsibility to the student. The paradox in this situation is that students often refrain from taking responsibility until parents step back. For a lot of reasons, this dilemma is played out in families very often, and good intentions coming from loving sentiments might not lead in the desired direction.

It is very uncomfortable, and even feels unnatural, for a parent to allow their student to feel the discomfort of emerging adult responsibilities. In addition, there is really no guarantee that students will assume responsibility or that they will make the same decision as you would. It is really easy to see how parents can lose sleep in thinking about decisions the student makes with which they disagree, that might not seem like the best decisions, or feel like the student is not taking responsibility at all.

In our experience, it is impossible to walk away and pretend to be disinterested, and that is not really honest in most cases. At the same time, it seldom seems productive for the student to take on all of the frustration of the parent. It is our suggestion that you provide clear messages about your concern that are supportive of the student. Let them know that your messages are targeted at the concerns that the student has rather than specific to you as the parent. Let the student now that you are concerned, and let the student know that they must sort this out. It’s even okay to tell the student that you don’t know what to do, but you are ready and willing to learn with them. Be attentive to opportunities for coaching, letting the student know that you are ready for coaching when the timing is right. Encourage them to help you know the nature of the support that they need, and trust their request. By moving too quickly, you might make it more difficult for the student to seek you when the time is right for them.

“College is different than I thought it would be.” For most students, arriving on campus for the first time brings many surprises. Even for people who have been in Winchester before, there’s a lot to discover about what college and life are about. Often people discover that a certain academic major has surprises in it or leads to other possibilities that were not anticipated. Part of the newness of the college experience might be the growing awareness that certain job roles which were being considered by the student are different than what was thought. Sometimes the surprises can even be within the student. They might find out that their interests or priorities have changed.

A big part of this change can be how to adapt to the new environment. At the most basic level, it might mean learning how to study, how much, and how often to study. Academic expectations are more rigorous than in high school. Students accustomed to receiving “A’s” and “B’s” have to work much harder to earn the top grades in college. They also have to figure out when they should be studying and how to motivate themselves to do so. Ultimately, they learn when to ask for help and when to resolve issues on their own. Coming face-to-face with new challenges is an important and usually beneficial part of the college experience. What often makes a difference between the challenges being beneficial or otherwise is the use of appropriate support. So, finding the best support in dealing with these challenges is very important. Often, students can get support from peers who approach their college experience in a positive way. Trained peer helpers (residence life staff and other trained peer helpers on campus) can also be valuable. The university has many other resources to address student needs. These resources include support for learning, health, career, and other personal concerns.

Like anyone experimenting with early independence, a student might assume that being independent means going through things without assistance. Parents can do a lot for their student by listening to them and asking questions. These questions can be a way to help a student explore and evaluate resources that promote and reflect maturity – the student can learn that getting appropriate help and getting advice do not detract from their autonomy or growth as an adult. At the same time, parents and other family members can serve key roles in providing the support needed. On many occasions, we have told parents that it might be a good idea to let their student now that the party has spoken with us and found our assistance to be useful.

Students often tell us how important it was that their parents believed in them and provided active support as the student made the effort to solve problems on their own. It is easy for parents to underestimate this fact, and important to recall that parents continue to provide support for their student as a move beyond college years. The support provided also contributes to the loving framework that can become a cherished foundation for the adult relationship that may be celebrated for years.

“I’m back!” The first visit home from college can bring new perspectives. These new perspectives can be interesting ones for all members of the family. The student might return home and think that the ‘new person’ who has emerged will be well-recognized and appreciated by the persons who knew them before. At the same time, parents and/or siblings might expect the student to be very much the same as before and that the rules and standards for the household will be experienced just as they were before the departure of the student.

Parents can expect that their views will differ from those held by students during those first visits home. Knowing this in advance, the student and the family can seek a compromise that considers both the needs of the original family and the growing independence of the student. It can be helpful in this situation for both the student and the family to keep the goal of overall family harmony and health as a priority so that everyone can begin the discussions in a spirit of respect and flexibility. There are a few differences between family members that are worth discarding the overall well-being of the family.

If your son or daughter is commuting to school from home, you can do a lot for their growth to help them evolve into new roles in the family system. Changes in independence and responsibility can be discussed and implemented in ways that provide new experiences for the student while building trust and positive feelings for everyone in the home.