By Kimberlie L. Goldsberry, Ph.D., Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Carthage College in Kenosha, WI.
With the fall semester underway, fledgling college students are living away from home for the first time and you, the parents and guardians, are learning to let go. In between paying the first tuition bills and shopping for residence hall supplies, you may be flooded with questions and concerns about your child’s transition and what it will mean for them, your family, and you. You may grapple with how to best support your child and how your role will change as they navigate college.
When I talk to parents and guardians, the first thing I tell them to expect are a lot of ups and downs during the first year at college—it’s critical to know that developmental changes will occur and that these changes can be challenging for both students and families.
A helpful theory in understanding the first-year experience is “The W-Curve,” which highlights the ups and downs you can expect for your child. Students typically start with a high of a honeymoon phase as they find connections and establish new relationships, set and test boundaries, explore interests, and begin to create a new personal identity. This phase presents an opportunity for your child to mature, become a young adult, and be out on their own.
This honeymoon can be followed by the low of cultural shock, a dip as your child experiences some of the first challenges of college life. Through this stage students are trying to weave together intense emotions, the questioning of knowledge, and an understanding of their own personal development. Because family members represent a safe space, students will often share only the negative and difficult stories. It is important to ask your child to share some of the positive things that are happening at this stage.
There is generally a return to a high point as your child adjusts to academics and campus life. It is during this phase that students begin to find a balance between school, personal life, and campus culture. They seize new opportunities for campus engagement, gain confidence, and explore new interests. Reassuring and encouraging your child is essential in this stage to help them realize that they still have a support system at home. Sending mail is one tangible way for students to feel supported.
This high is followed by a period of mental isolation. You should not be alarmed. This fourth stage happens for a number of reasons and is completely normal. Students try to reconcile their home and school lives; as they try to find a balance between two worlds, they may experience confusion and a sense of isolation.
Finally, with supports from home and school, your child may end their year on a high note of acceptance, integration, and connectedness, when they begin calling their college campus “home.” Although you may struggle with letting go when your child begins to refer to school as home, it is a sign of maturation. This is a good thing.
It’s important for you and your child to know that college is set up to support you. Most colleges have a number of services in place: academic tutoring; support services, which includes supplemental instruction and writing centers; faculty advisers; short-term counseling; and health and wellness services.
Beyond what a campus can do for its students, however, I try to stress to parents and guardians that their role as parent is changing as their child matures. You have concerns about all facets of your child’s lives—behavior and habits, health, academic performance, social lives—and up until college, you exercise a significant level of control over your child. Pre-college parents and guardians tends focus on directing and prescribing for their children and, in effect, acting as their manager.
As your child begins college, you will continue to have concerns and you still have some opportunities for influence—especially when your child asks for an opinion or advice—but the level of parental control is greatly reduced. That change can cause anxiety in parents and guardians, but you must realize that your child is entering adulthood. FERPA, or the Federal Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, identifies that students have the right to determine what records—including grades, conduct, and health records—they choose to share and with whom they choose to share them. Parents and guardians shouldn’t try to pressure their child into signing a FERPA release form. A healthier way to discover how your child is doing is to have an open conversation with them about expectations and how you can support their growth.
At the same time, students are beginning to figure out who they are and what they want to do with their time on earth. The effective collegiate parent tends to focus on their child’s passions and interests, while facilitating, advising, listening, and ultimately acting as their child’s coach.
Even though your child may not say or show it, they still need you—however, they need different things. When I talk to college students, what I find again and again is students asking parents to stop certain behaviors. These include: calling about homework completion; using bank statements to track what they’re doing; bribing students to stay connected; and making students feel guilty about leaving home. Instead, college students crave a parent who can relax, give them some space, trust and support them, tell them they’re proud of them, and love them unconditionally. You have seen your child work through issues in the past; it’s important to remind them of this as they try to surmount new challenges. The successful parent or guardian sees this ending of their old relationship dynamic with their child as a new beginning. Your college-aged child doesn’t need you to swoop in to save the day anymore. In fact, they must learn to come to their own rescue, and in doing so, move onto a healthy adulthood.
Kimberlie L. Goldsberry, Ph.D., is vice president of student affairs and dean of students at Carthage College in Kenosha, WI. As Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students, she directs the College’s efforts in residence life, student activities, Greek life, health and counseling, faith and spirituality, multicultural affairs, leadership development, new student orientation, and the disciplinary process. She joined the Carthage College Division of Student Affairs in February 2016. Learn more about Dr. Goldsberry here.
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