Helping your student thrive
It is important to possess reasonable and realistic expectations of yourself and your student when he or she leaves for college, particularly in responding to daily stressors. Unlike when your child was living at home, you are not well-positioned to do much more than listen, encourage, and support. As tempting as it may be to find a way to do more than lend a sympathetic ear, it is in your student’s best interest that you do not do more unless you are sincerely concerned for his or her safety. Experiencing daily stress, even if it involves feeling really down at times, is a critical part of learning how to productively cope with life, and it offers important opportunities for development and reflection.
Just as leaving for college invites emerging adults to develop new skills and abilities, it invites parents to step fully into new roles as more distal supporters and advisors. Research consistently shows that parental emotional availability is useful in young adult development of autonomy and capacity, but what does this look like? Here are a few tips for offering developmentally useful support and guidance:
- Help your student become aware of his or her own patterns of stress management by asking the questions above and helping him or her to understand the differences between normal and healthy stress and more serious signs of distress.
- Encourage your student to make local connections. Although the Internet offers unparalleled opportunities to stay connected with friends at home, having local friends, confidants, and supporters is imperative for thriving and coping when times are hard.
- Limit your involvement in problem solving to making observations or suggestions. If there are calls to be made, offices to be visited, information to be gathered, or conversations to be had, support your child in taking these steps, but refrain from doing it for him or her, unless it is clearly your jurisdiction.
- Gradually reduce contact to the point that it feels comfortable to go for a week or more without significant exchange. I know this sounds radical for some families; there are a number of students who regard their parent(s) as their best friend(s). And, it need not happen right away. But, it is important that your student have the opportunity to experience herself or himself as capable of going through multiple days without parental check in. Experiencing yourself as capable and resilient is not possible if you do not confront situations that require resilience.
- Model healthy ways of coping. Share your positive strategies for dealing with your own challenges. Your evolution as a parent and a person is a powerful learning opportunity for your student since he or she inevitably identifies with you more than you probably know (or like to think!). Being mindful about how you manage your own stress and sharing that process with your student is even more supportive than simply listening to what is shared because it models authentic growth and development.
Parents are critical allies of the developmental process. Staying connected while supporting separation and the trials and errors that build capacity and confidence is a fine line—particularly in the constant-contact era. There is no right or wrong way of helping children grow; it seems to happen despite us in most cases anyway! When in doubt, reach out for advice and trust that all of us here at Cornell want the best for your child, as well.