When a child leaves for college: Parents must learn to let go

Published: Sunday, Sept. 2 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

Jaelyn Dean and her 18-year-old college freshman, Holly, have escaped the sweltering August heat of Logan, Utah, to an auditorium for freshman orientation at Utah State University. Holly mimicked a reserved smile as she and her mother parted ways into separate sections for parents and students.

Though she knows it will be best, Dean is finding it difficult to allow Holly to be on her own.

This month, parents across the country are saying goodbye as they drop their children off at a college campus for the first time. More than 90 percent of colleges in the U.S. are implementing or expanding orientation programs not for incoming freshmen, but for their parents, according to the National Orientation Directors Association in 2011. As parents are maintaining constant contact with their children while away, colleges are stepping in with an important message to parents.

Let go.

"At first I was shocked when they asked the parents to stay all day in this orientation," Dean said. "But it has relieved my anxiety about sending her up there."

Unseen, but present

Parents today are more involved in their students' lives than any previous generation, Marjorie Savage, author of the parenting book "You're on Your Own (But I'm Here if You Need Me)," told the Deseret News. The communication methods we have today make it so easy to be in touch with a student. "It's free, it's cheap and it's instantaneous."

Nearly 52 percent of young adults ages 18 to 29 reported having daily or almost daily contact with parents via text, phone or in person, according to a survey commissioned by Clark University in Worcester, Mass. Thirty-four percent said their parents were more involved in their life than they really wanted them to be.

Another factor, Savage said, is that parents today are more engaged in education than a generation ago: The stakes are higher, entrance requirements are tougher, and the cost of college has escalated.

The students who are in the most frequent contact with their parents are the least autonomous and least capable of regulating their own lives, psychology professor at Middlebury College Barbara Hofer, and co-author, Abigail Sullivan Moore, found.

In their book "The iConnected Parent: Staying Close to Your Kids in College (and Beyond) while Letting Them Grow Up," Hofer and Moore wrote that self-regulating college students are more satisfied with their academic lives, social lives and overall college experience. These students have higher GPAs than their parent-regulated peers.

Hofer and Sullivan found extreme versions of parental over-involvement. One first-year student said his mom had copies of all four of his class syllabi and would call to remind him when anything was due.

"College students need the psychological space to grow into independent, responsible adults, and if parents are in too much contact, advising them on each step of their lives and continuing to remind them of what they need to do, they don't learn as readily to take charge of their own lives," Hofer said in an email to the Deseret News.

This increased parental involvement may also stem from what developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett of Clark University calls "emerging adulthood," referring to a phase of development from the late teens to the mid-to-late 20s. The phenomenon emerged emerged in the 21st century and refers to the way young people are taking more time to carefully plan how they will jump into adulthood.

Though age 21 has been the traditional mark of adulthood, today's young adults don't feel that they're quite there yet. In a survey of young adults, almost 60 percent said adulthood would be more enjoyable than their life is now. Parental involvement may be a significant factor.

Colleges are paying attention

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