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

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

The trend of parental involvement is definitely increasing, said Lisa Hancock, new student orientation program administrator for Utah State University, who has seen a rise in parent attendance at orientation over the past few years.

Parental involvement is encouraged, Hancock said, but only up to a point. At USU, a separate parent orientation is offered at the same time as the student orientation where parents are given information and resources available on campus. The hope is that when a student calls a parent with a problem, the parent will direct their child to a resident assistant, a math tutor or a school counselor, for example.

"Parents who allow their student to make their own decisions and seek on-campus help proactively but are still there to offer advice provide healthy involvement in their student's college career," Hancock said.

Parents are sometimes asked to back off. Each incoming Utah State student meets with an academic adviser to arrange a class schedule. Parents are asked to allow their students to do this alone. The advisers say they see the students back more often if the students are able to cement that relationship with their adviser in that initial meeting, Hancock said. This rarely happens when parents are asking most of the questions. Parents are given the same resources and tools — the Utah State general catalog, websites and a copy of degree work — the students are given, so they remain informed.

Many schools are hiring staff to work as full-time parent mediators to function as a connection point for parents, and to handle any concerns.

"Our goal is to arm the parents with as much information as possible so they can better support their students," said Mark Pontious, assistant director of orientation and leadership development at the University of Utah. During freshman orientation, parents are given information about the developmental changes they can expect from their students the first year.

"We talk about the difference between being a parent who cares for their student and a parent who cares about their student," Pontious said. Mediators tell parents about the benefits of allowing their students to take those missteps and make those mistakes so they can do some exploring on their own and learn from it.

"We encourage parents to make the student make those phone calls if they have a question for our office so they can start to build that independence that they'll need, at some point, when they go off on their own," Pontious said.

Healthy parental involvement

Hofer advocates a slow process of letting go that involves the development of a healthy connection. "Given all the ways in which individuals can be in contact now, what matters is how to use that contact in healthy ways," she said.

Hofer suggests speaking with the college-bound child before he or she leaves home about how often to communicate and who will initiate the contact. Be sure to give the child a chance to call, Hofer said. "We found that the students who initiated more of the contact were more satisfied with their relationship with parents and were more autonomous."

Parents should check in with their student but be careful about offering unsolicited advice, avoiding words like "should" and "must." Instead, parents should learn to listen and act as a sounding board for the student.

Parents are also encouraged to know the college resources and help their child use them. "We were disturbed to find that one in five students in our studies were sending papers home for editing and proofing," Hofer said. She suggests that rather than intervening and swooping in to rescue the student, parents should direct the child to peer writing tutors, the college writing center, or teaching assistants and professors.

Parents who are concerned about when they should or shouldn't be involved can ask themselves several questions, Savage told the Deseret News. First, could most young adults this age handle this kind of a problem? If the answer is yes, the parent should not be involved. Another question to ask is whether or not the student is asking for the parent's help. If not, the student should be left to handle it.

Keeping the long view in mind is helpful. "It's tempting to want to solve each problem for a child — and cell phones create an emotional immediacy that often makes problems seem larger than they might actually be, so the urge to jump in is understandable," Hofer said. "Think about the kind of person you want your child to become and what they might learn by solving a problem themselves and doing their own work — more resourceful, responsible and competent adults."

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