The college years can present unique challenges for students and their parents/families. Below you will find information about:

Understanding the Transition to College

For your daughter or son, college will likely be a period of intellectual stimulation and growth, career exploration and development, increased autonomy, self-exploration and discovery, and social involvement. During this period, your children may forge new identities or seek to clarify their values and beliefs. This may require an examination of self, friends and family. It may also be a time for exploration and experimentation, and a period in which your children may question or challenge the values you hold dear. The changes your children may experience can occur quickly as they begin to develop new peer relationships, gain competence in new areas, and learn to manage independence. It is important to recognize that every child will experience his or her own unique challenges and adjustments, just as every parent will have different expectations for and reactions to their child's college experience.

Often overlooked is the fact that the college experience is a significant transition for the parents of college students, too. As parents, you may experience feelings of happiness, excitement and pride when your children leave for college. At the same time, you may feel a sense of sadness and pain and have many understandable fears and concerns about your children's future and well-being. You may worry about your children's safety and ability to care effectively for themselves. You may fear "losing" your children as they begin to function more independently and form deep attachments with peers. You may be concerned about how your children will deal with alcohol, drugs and sexual relationships. You may also wonder how your children's performance in college will reflect on you as the parent.

Here are some ways you might support your children:

Although your children want and need to become more autonomous during this period, it is important for them to know you are still available. Maintaining a supportive relationship with them can be critical, particularly during their first year of college. If you and your children were not particularly close prior to their leaving home, it is still important for you to convey your support. You may be surprised to find that some space and distance from your children can help improve your relationships with them.

It is important to maintain regular contact with your children, but also to allow space for your children to approach you and set the agenda for some of your conversations. Let your children know that you respect and support their right to make independent decisions and that you will serve as an advocate and an advisor when asked. Finally, recognize that it is normal for your children to seek your help one day and reject it the next. Such behavior can be confusing and exhausting for parents, so make sure to take care of yourself by talking about your feelings with your own support system.

Be realistic and specific with your children about financial issues, including what you will and will not pay for, as well as your expectations for how they will spend money.

It is also important to be realistic about your children's academic performance, recognizing that not every straight-A student in high school will be a straight-A student in college. Help your children set reasonable academic goals and encourage them to seek academic assistance when needed.

The fact that your children have left home does not necessarily prevent family problems from arising or continuing. Refrain from burdening your children with problems from home they have no control over and can do nothing about. Sharing these problems with your children may cause them to worry excessively and even feel guilty that they are away from home and unable to help.

Find out contact information for people involved in the various aspects of your children's college experience. If you have questions, or if a particular problem arises, contact the appropriate person, but make sure to involve your children in a collaborative effort to address the problem.

Here are some ways you might support yourself:

  • Recognize that it is normal to have mixed feelings when your children leave home. Feelings of pain and loss often accompany separation from loved ones. It is also normal to feel a sense of relief when your children leave for college, and to look forward to some time alone, with your significant other or with your younger children.
  • Do your best to develop and maintain your own social support.
  • Do your best to maintain your own sense of well-being. This may involve eating and sleeping well, exercising and setting new and creative goals for yourself. Perhaps this is a good time to do some of the things you put off while your children were growing up. Taking on a project or hobby can be an excellent way to channel your energy and feelings.

Services Provided by Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) [top]

CAPS provides free, confidential services for CI students, including individual and group counseling; walk-in consultations, emergency psychological services, and psycho-educational outreach programming.

Students seek counseling for a variety of reasons including relationship concerns, difficulties with roommates, loneliness, isolation, emotional difficulties including depression and anxiety, eating problems, and identity issues. Normally these problems are relatively temporary and students recover fairly quickly; however, if the intensity or persistence of any of the problems makes it hard for your student to function effectively, or if your student is experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, it is advisable to encourage your student to come to CAPS right away. It usually works best to allow your son or daughter to take the initiative in accessing our services. If you are the one who calls and makes an appointment, your son or daughter may be less likely to follow through.

Counseling and Psychological Services as a Resource for Parents [top]

CAPS provides consultations to parents concerned about their students. Such consultations can focus on a range of issues, including how to assist a student experiencing a difficult situation, how to refer a student to CAPS or how to locate appropriate mental health treatment for students. To secure a consultation, call CAPS at (805) 437-2088 and ask to speak with a counselor.

Confidentiality and Parents [top]

Confidentiality is an essential part of any counseling relationship. CAPS staff adheres to the ethical standards of their respective professions and to state and federal laws relating to confidentiality. These standards and laws prevent us from speaking with concerned parents about their student's contact with CAPS unless we have the student's written permission. Thus, unless your student gives us written permission, we cannot acknowledge whether your student has been seen or is making progress in counseling. The only exceptions occur when a student is under 18 years of age, we are concerned that a student is clearly and imminently a risk to self or others, we learn of ongoing child abuse or we are ordered to release confidential information by a court of law.

Many students prefer to keep their counseling completely private, and such privacy is typically vital for successful counseling. Assuming your student is, however, willing to have one of the counselors discuss her or his participation in counseling with you, one good way to arrange for this is by asking your student to have the counselor call you during a counseling session. The counselor will then have your student complete and sign the necessary form, and may call you using a speaker telephone so that all concerned can participate in the conversation. Note that, in general, counseling is best served if everything parents have to share with their student's counselor is also shared with their student.

Even if your student doesn't give her or his counselor permission to provide information to you, you may choose to contact a counselor to share your concerns. Such contact may make sense, for example, if you are concerned that your student is in serious danger. Note, however, that the counselor will not be able to even acknowledge knowing your student, and that the counselor will want to discuss any information you provide with your student.

Other Helpful Resources [top]

Books

  • Don't Tell Me What To Do: Just Send Money, by Helen Johnson and Christine Schelhas-Miller (2000)
  • When Your Kid Goes To College: A Parent's Survival Guide, by Carol Barkin (1999)
  • Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Understanding the College Years, by Karen Levin Coburn & Madge Lawrence Treeger (1997)

Web Sites

Adapted from the Hobart and William Smith Colleges.