Parenting: The College Age Years

Coral Gables Counseling Center - Wednesday, July 18, 2018
By Mirta Pont, LCSW,

Certified EMDR Therapist

Many articles are written with the focus on parenting young children or adolescents; however, there seems to be a void of information on how to parent of college age kids. This is a very important and ambiguous stage because it’s when our children legally turn into adults. The question becomes: how do parents transition into being the parents of young adults? In my years of experience in running parent groups and workshops, the question of parenting from an appropriate developmental stage is somewhat of a revelation to some parents.
Once children leave their homes for college, it’s the first time parents truly feel powerless over them and their everyday lives. A shift needs to occur from being their protectors, mentors, time managers, activities directors, etcetera, to letting them pick up these roles on their own and perhaps doing it from a distant and different location.
Parents need to stay supportive of children while allowing them to practice their new found independence by being autonomous and making mistakes along the way. Some would say that these are things that should have been happening all along. In the best case scenario, “good enough” parenting has achieved a level of this with their child. I’ve found out in my office that oftentimes college age children many times enter this stage with a lack of living skills that are just as much a part of their education as their academic classes.
What is a parent to do? Well, parents usually do what was done to them or the complete opposite. When practicing extremes though, opportunities for growth can be impeded.  For example, some parents completely let go of their children with the opinion that they should be able to figure it out now that they are adults. Other parents continue to be helicopter parents. They remind, nag, scold, guilt, double-check and demand. I remember when one of my clients called the university for the first time to discuss her daughter’s grades with a counselor. First of all, they are called academic advisors and secondly she was told that her daughter was 18 and they were not allowed to release those records to the parent — even though she was paying the bill. What a revelation!
The reality of the first semester of college (especially abroad) is that it is overwhelming for most kids. Kids are apprehensive about being able to handle it all. They don’t want to disappoint their families but most of all, they don’t want to feel like failures. 
Parents need to educate themselves about this stage in a child’s life and learn how to hit a happy medium for all involved. I think therapy is a great place to start. If a parent is feeling a bit anxious about their child going away to school for the first time or they find themselves clashing with their child more frequently, they should seek professional help. 
Discussing with a professional one’s fears, thoughts, and ideas around this topic is extremely helpful. A professional not only will lend a new “set of eyes” around the subject but may also point that person to readily available resources, (i.e., other parents in the same situation, online information or helpful books.) 
Universities are also supportive of parents. They have parent groups and appropriate activities for parents that want to be connected. These activities, however, are often more geared towards supporting the university. This isn’t so bad because in a way parents get information about things going on at the university level that they wouldn’t otherwise get from their child.
If your child is going to a local community college and living at home, now is the time to practice backing off and allowing them to take on even more responsibility since the life skills end of it is taken care of. If they intend on transferring to a non-local university in the future, then now is really the time when the living skills need to be encouraged and improved. Consequently, when they leave, they will no longer be challenged.
Finally, if your child left home to go to college, know that there is going to be an adjustment period for all involved. The best way to look at it is like a baseball game. You can allow your child to go up to bat and hit the ball, cheer them on when they’re running the bases, and let them know that home base is still there.