Tips for Parents: 4 Things to Avoid When Your Kids Go to College

parent of a new college studentWhen your child is on the way to college, you want to help them succeed. You’re usually thrilled that your child performed well enough in high school to move on to what many people see as the first real phase of American adulthood. All the AP classes, SAT scores, ACT scores, and acceptance to one or more colleges feels like success – and it should. You’ve followed all the “tips for parents” notices that your child’s high school sent out, and you feel justifiably proud of their progress.

The problem is, most parents are not aware of how different college is from high school. The expectations, the skill sets, the requirements, and even the mindset are all different. Too often, parents continue to do what seemed to work to encourage and motivate their high-school seniors, not realizing that their attempts are going to backfire and create the very problems they’re hoping to avoid for their college students. So here’s some new tips for parents about what to avoid, and how to help, when your child leaves for college.

Things That Don’t Work

1. Fixing Their Problems For Them

You might be used to checking in with your student’s teachers and getting feedback on what they’re doing or not doing. In college, however, professors not only will not talk with you about your student’s progress – they’re legally prohibited from doing so, once your child turns 18. A federal law called FERPA puts the kibosh on professor-parent interactions.

You might also be used to calling the school about discipline issues – a bully, or another child who’s causing your student distress. In college, your student will be expected to work it out on their own and seek out their own assistance. If you try to step in, the college administration will probably be less than helpful. Being a squeaky wheel on your child’s behalf won’t work anymore. Worse, it can make it more likely that they will get less help if their parent is the one trying to fix the problem.

So if it’s been your style to call the teacher and ask for an explanation of a grade, it’s time to set that aside. If your student has been used to you smoothing the road for them, it’s time for them to learn how to deal with the bumps and potholes themselves. This means that sometimes, you have to accept that they will make mistakes and fail. This builds an important skill called “resilience,” which most employers expect. If your student doesn’t have it when they leave school, their chances of getting a job also go down.

It may be difficult to let your child struggle with their problems when you’ve been accustomed to saving them and fixing everything. Just remember,  you do your child no favors if you continue to do this for them now. Let them learn how to solve their problems on their own. It will build resilience, and resilience is critical to their success.

What To Do Instead: Guide Them In Problem-Solving

Instead of calling the professor to fix their grades, ask your student what was the most difficult part of the class. Was it the homework? The in-class exercises? The workload? Then brainstorm ways to deal with those issues when they come up again – and they will. Every professor expects your student to put in three hours per week for each unit of their class, between in-class time and outside study time. If they’re having a conflict with someone (for example, a dorm-mate), ask the student to find the proper channels on their own.  If they need to, they can check in with you about them. But let them take the lead in checking in – don’t pester them with calls or texts every day. Which leads us to…

2. Checking In Every Day

You might be used to daily contact with your child. Then they head off to college. If you’ve never been separated from them for long periods of time, it’s natural to worry and want to keep in touch.

The problem is, too many parents overdo this. They barrage their children with text messages, emails and phone calls. They’re just  hoping to re-establish the same kind of contact that they had when they saw their child every day. Usually, the student responds in one of two ways:

  1. Eager participation in this interaction because they’re homesick and not coping well with their new environment.
  2. Cutting the parent off entirely because they want to demonstrate their independence. Having Mom text them every thirty minutes is embarrassing.

In the first case, the student isn’t learning to stand on their own two feet and grow into their adulthood. They may be afraid of change and growth. Over-contact with their parents allows them to remain a child and avoid the nerve-wracking next steps into adulthood. Psychologists call this “enmeshment,” and it’s not good for your child. In this case, it’s your responsibility to back off and let them grow, no matter how hard that might be for you.

In the second case, the child may not actually be ready to stop all contact with their parents. Without having Mom or Dad’s wiser head giving advice and a little bit of guidance, they may end up doing things they will regret later. But if you barrage them, they may not see another choice.

What To Do Instead: Set a Contact Schedule

Find a happy medium. Before your child heads off to college, set up a contact schedule. Talk about what feels reasonable to them – one text a day? One per week? An email every few weeks? Maybe you can schedule one phone call on the weekend to catch up on what happened during the week, or a Skype call every two weeks. The goal is to have some contact, but keep it minimal. You want your child to move into their adult life and start making their own decisions, not continue to depend on you.

3. Asking About Their Grades

This one really shocks a lot of parents when I bring it up in coaching conferences. Why wouldn’t they ask about grades? Aren’t grades the measure of what success looks like in school? And what could possibly be wrong with asking about grades and praising your child for doing well? But believe it or not, there’s actually several things wrong with asking about your student’s grades.

First, most students’ grades drop when they first start college. When you consider how different college is from high school, this shouldn’t be surprising. Not only do they have to work with brand-new ideas in their classes, but they’re dealing with a new campus, a new living space if they live on campus, new people, a new administrative system, and a whole new set of expectations. Plus, their support network is either gone or remote, and they can’t depend on their parents to stamp out fires or talk to teachers for them anymore. Given those circumstances, you can see how your student will already be under a certain amount of stress, and that stress will interfere with their grades and GPA in the first year or so.

Second, when you praise them for good grades or scold them for bad ones, you are setting up the idea in their head that they are a “good student” or a “bad student” and that that’s all they can ever be. This surprised researcher Carol Dweck when she investigated what praise for being smart vs. praise for hard work did to second-grade children: those praised for their intellect became far less willing to take any further risks, including the risk of making a mistake.

Finally, when you ask about their grades, you shift their focus from the work they need to do, to the grade itself. This is like asking a basketball player about their score while they’re trying to practice their jump shot. You’re going to pull their attention away from what they should be doing (their game) and put it in the wrong place (the scoreboard).

So promise yourself now that you’ll never, ever ask your student “How are your grades?” or “What grade did you get?” again.

What to Do Instead: Ask About Their Work

Ask them what kinds of projects they’re doing. What’s interesting? What’s not? What do they think they’ve done well, and why? What do they think they could work on and improve? How do they think they could improve it – do they have plans for how to improve? Keep the focus on their work, not on their grade.

4. Reacting to Their Emotions

It’s natural to want your student to be happy all the time, but let’s be honest. They will have stressful days and anxious nights. That’s part of what being in a new place and a new situation is like. Even if your child normally thrives on novelty, there is always an upper limit to how much a person can handle.

This means that sometimes they’re going to call you or email you about their feelings. For some parents, the levels of emotion can be uncomfortable or even frightening. Remember, your child depends on you to be a rock in their stormy sea. Don’t make it worse by getting upset too. If you do,  your child will have the added guilt of upsetting you. They’ll also feel like they  have to divert energy towards calming down and reassuring you, instead of dealing with their feelings.

What to do Instead: Support, Don’t React

Lisa Kaplin at Grown and Flown has some excellent advice for parents on supporting your college student when they’re unhappy. She also provides tips on how to avoid overreacting to their emotional state. I can’t say it better than she can, so click the link to find out more.

Tying It Together

It may feel like good parenting to contact your child daily, ask about their grades, cry with them when they’re unhappy, or smooth the road for them. The problem is that these all get in the way of one of the main goals of college: allowing your child to become a functional, responsible adult.

So back away a little bit and let them go their own way. It may be hard at first, but most students learn to handle whatever college life throws at them. That’s an important step to handling whatever life throws at them, as well.

You May Also Be Interested In…
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