The Parent Trap

Advice for anxious parents sending their children off for their first year of college

Advice to anxious parents as they send their children off to college

After your child’s college acceptance letters arrived this past spring, you breathed a huge sigh of relief. The worst was over. The dreaded and tortuous application process was finished. No more waking up in the middle of the night, wondering, “Should my child have applied to one more school?” No more waiting anxiously for the mail carrier to deliver encouraging, thick envelopes (“Yes! We want your brilliant child!”) as well as spirit-sinking thin ones (“Sorry”).

Now comes the fun part (or so you think): in the fall, you’ll deposit your offspring in a snug little dorm room on an ivy-covered campus and then respond with joy and approval as he or she reports back each week with tales of academic adventures and achievement.

Ah, inexperienced parent, if only you knew what lies ahead. Soon you’ll be looking back at your child’s senior-year-in-high-school frustrations with both nostalgia and longing.

“There’s a lot of naiveté,” says Madge Lawrence Treeger, a psychotherapist in private practice in St. Louis, Missouri, and co-author of Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years. “There’s so much angst during [the high school years] that by the time their child gets into college, parents feel the same sense of possibility they did when the child was born—sort of, the sky’s the limit. There’s all this hope and excitement.”

And there should be. College is, for most students, an environment with limitless opportunities—for following intellectual passions, for developing lifelong friendships, and for finding out just who you are and where you fit in the world.

But even in well-adjusted, happy families, that first year can be emotionally wrenching—for parents as well as the student. Studies have shown that baby boomer parents have a particularly difficult time letting go of their college-age children.

In fact, teachers and college administrators have a term for such parents: “helicopter parents,” so called because they “hover” over their child, micro-managing everything, from filling out roommate preference questionnaires to choosing their kid’s courses to calling each morning to make sure the student gets to class on time.

Whether or not you fit that description (and helicopter parents usually fail to recognize themselves), are you truly prepared for your child’s first year of college? Are you ready to deal with a son who goes from getting straight As in high school to almost flunking his first semester? Do you know what you’ll say to a daughter who tells you after two months at her “dream” school that she hates the place and wants to transfer or, worse, drop out altogether? How will you respond when your child tells you tales of roommates from hell or love affairs gone sour? Or when your child comes home for winter break looking and sounding like a stranger (a patronizing one, at that)?

Parents, hang on. It’s going to be a bumpy year. Fortunately, there are things you can do to make that first year of college smoother for you and your child.

Be a mentor, not a manager

“When your child gets to college, your job is to empower them and to mentor them, but not to actively manage them,” says Marjorie Savage, parent-program director at the University of Minnesota and author of You’re On Your Own (But I’m Here If You Need Me): Mentoring Your Child During the College Years.

Of course, that’s easier said than done for the overanxious, hyper-involved parents of today’s millennium generation (kids born after 1982).

“This is a generation of students who have spent a lot of time with their parents,” explains Laurie Hamre, vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Macalester College. “Parents have done everything with them, from grade school on.”

Many parents have served as their child’s devoted secretary for 18 years, organizing a steady stream of highly structured activities—piano lessons, hockey practices, theater rehearsals, math tutoring, SAT prep classes, and on and on. They’ve also orchestrated their child’s academic lives, from editing high school papers to running “interference” with teachers and school administrators (both “helicopter” traits, by the way).

Those habits are hard to break. “We now get as many calls and questions from parents the first few weeks of school as we do from students,” says Hamre.

Parents need to back off, she says, and let their child make his or her own choices, even if those include sleeping through morning classes or starting a 3,000-word term paper the night before it’s due or living on pizza and soft drinks for three weeks running.

Being overinvolved in your child’s life not only undermines your child’s sense of self-confidence, it’s also not good for your own mental health. A recent study found that overinvolved parents who base their self-worth on their children’s achievements (measured by such questions as “My daughter’s failure can make me feel ashamed”) report more symptoms of anxiety and depression than less-involved parents. Nor does it matter if your child is a star student: the study found that even when their children received high grades in college, overinvolved parents continued to express more negative emotions than other parents.

According to the study, 20 percent of today’s parents judge themselves by their children’s accomplishments. “It’s amazing,” says Missa Murry Eaton, an assistant professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University–Shenango and co-author of the study. “These are parents—mothers and fathers—who are very well educated and who work full-time in their professions. These are not parents whose lives revolve solely around their children, yet they’ve become dependent on their children’s accomplishments for their own self-worth.”

Parents often “go into a funk” after their child goes off to college, says Savage. “They suddenly have all this time on their hands. I tell them this is their chance to try and do something new.”

Take up knitting or kayaking. Join a book group or a political campaign. Maybe even go back to college yourself (not, however, at your child’s school!). And then, if you continue to remain excessively preoccupied with your child’s ups and down at college, consider counseling to detangle your self-esteem from your child’s successes or failures.

Know when (and how) to say goodbye

Dropping off your child at college can be a chaotic, high-stress, and emotionally charged experience. Try to behave yourself, parents.

Here are some things not to do: don’t arrive with your daughter’s four-poster bed and complain because it doesn’t fit in the dorm room. Don’t participate in the negotiation between your son and his roommate about who gets which bed, dresser, and closet and how the furniture should be arranged. Don’t attend student-only orientation events—or insist that your child have a “last meal” with you rather than going out with a group of students from her residence hall. And don’t grill your child’s roommate about his eating, sleeping, and studying habits.

“When I met my roommate, his parents were right there, breathing down my back,” recalls Brandon Walker, a 19-year-old New Orleans native who completed his first year at Carleton College in June. “They were asking me all sorts of questions. I wanted to tell them, ‘I’m not going to be living with you. I’m going to be living with your son.’”

Walker’s advice to parents: “Give your child a big hug and say goodbye.”

Whatever you do, don’t be like the mom who checked into a bed-and-breakfast near Macalester College after dropping off her son for his freshman year last fall. She quickly became a fixture on campus—and an embarrassment to her son.

“After the third week, I finally had to call her in and say, ‘It’s time for you to go home,’  ” recalls Hamre. “She said, ‘My flight is not for another week.’ I said, ‘I’ll pay the difference.’ ”

The mother left. Her son managed just fine without her.

Skyler Nowinski, a 19-year-old from Houston who began his studies at the University of Minnesota last year, warns parents against talking up their kid’s talents and skills while on campus. “Parents try to impress their children’s friends by talking about their children,” he says. “But we don’t really want other people representing us. We want to reveal what we want to reveal—and when.”

Also, don’t expect to have a long, meaningful conversation about life and new beginnings with your child on move-in day. “There won’t be any Kodak moment,” says Treeger. “Your child will be too busy.”

Nowinski’s parents, like those of many students who attend school far from home, found opportunities for heart-to-heart discussions during the long drive from Texas to Minnesota. “He was a captive audience,” laughs Skyler’s mother, Deborah Nowinski. “Everything we forgot to tell him in the last 18 years, we told him during that trip.” She says the three-day journey brought the family closer—and helped her and her husband say goodbye. “We dropped off this very sweet kid at the university, knowing he’d soon be turning into an incredible adult,” she says.

Don’t panic when your child panics

Expect your child to get homesick. “Often, parents think that if their student has gotten through the first couple of weeks, he’s adjusted and is fine,” says Savage. “But that’s not necessarily true.”

Disillusionment and homesickness often start around mid-October, when students receive their mid-term grades. “Suddenly, the student will start thinking, ‘It’s harder than I thought. It’s not as much fun as I thought. I’m not as smart as I need to be,’ ” says Savage. Students at highly selective colleges and universities can be particularly prone to such self-doubts. In high school, they were used to being at the top of their class. Now, they’re surrounded by other valedictorians and National Merit scholars—and, as a result, may find themselves, for the first time, in the middle of the academic pack.

Many students begin to realize that some of their initial choices—classes, friends, or study habits—were poor.

If your child calls you upset about a professor who grades unfairly or a roommate who never picks up her clothes or a track coach who refuses to give him a starting position, “listen to the complaints, but don’t try to fix things,” says Hudlin Wagner, dean of students at Carleton College. Acknowledge your child’s feelings, but avoid inflaming the situation by getting angry yourself. And, whatever you do, resist the temptation to rev up that helicopter engine and call the professor or the coach or the dean of students to demand that something be done.

Instead, ask your child if he or she can think of ways to improve the situation. Remember: you want your child to learn how to deal with conflict and disappointment on his or her own. If your child can’t (or won’t) think of possible ways of addressing the problem at hand, go ahead and offer one or two ideas of your own, but make sure you present them as gentle suggestions, not marching orders. Encourage your student to seek out an on-campus resource—an academic advisor, a counselor, or someone in the school’s student life office.

“Then say, ‘Give me a call tomorrow night and let me know if you’re okay,’ ” says Savage. “This gives your child time to resolve the problem and it gives you a deadline to look forward to, so you’re not worrying endlessly.”

If you don’t hear from your son or daughter, you can probably assume that the problem got resolved. Wagner recalls how her daughter called her sobbing one evening during her first semester of college, claiming she had no friends on campus. “I was ready to get in the car,” Wagner says, “but then I didn’t hear for her for two more weeks. When she finally did call back, she told me she had made some friends that very night she called me.”

 Difficulty making friends is a common “panic issue” for first-year students. “A lot of students make friends quickly when they start school,” says Savage. “But a month or two later they think, these are not the people I want to hang around with, and I don’t know how to find anyone else.” Some students may feel that they haven’t made any friends at all.

Again, you should listen empathetically and then ask your child if he or she can think of ways of meeting new people—by joining a campus organization, starting a study group, or simply leaving a dorm-room door open while hanging out, so others feel comfortable dropping by and saying hello.

Also, remind your child that close, solid friendships take time to develop. When Maureen Barradas, a 19-year-old Chicagoan, arrived at Carleton College last fall, she missed her old friends terribly. “It’s hard to find people that you really click with,” she says. “I had to remind myself that my relationship with my friends back home took time, too. I knew I had to be patient.”

Barradas, like a great many first-year students, thought about transferring to a different school, primarily because she missed her high school friends and big-city life. By the middle of her second semester at Carleton, however, she began to realize “the amazing opportunities that can only be offered at a small school”—and had begun to develop a solid, comforting circle of new friends.

A desire to transfer is common among first-year students—a fact unknown to most parents, who often feel blindsided when they receive a seemingly out-of-the-blue “I hate this school. I want to transfer!” phone call from their child. Parents are usually unsure how to react, particularly when they know that transferring can result in lost credits, tuition dollars, and scholarships, and may not solve a child’s social or academic problems.

“By mid-October, when students don’t feel at home here, they decide it must be our fault. Something must be wrong with the college,” says Hamre. “It’s real common. Probably half of our first-year class wants to transfer sometime during October.”

Nationally, 60 percent of students do end up attending more than one college or university—a number that has climbed steadily during the last two decades. According to a study released earlier this year by the National Center for Education Statistics, about a third of these students transfer for a more desirable academic program, another third for a better location or more prestige, and about 10 percent for financial reasons. The rest transfer for other reasons—perhaps because of homesickness or a failed love affair or academic struggles.

It’s important, says Hamre, that parents keep the transfer option open for their child. “Don’t panic,” she says. “Ask your child to think again about what they want in college and about how much effort they’ve already put into it. But don’t close their options off, because then they’ll really feel penned in.”

Savage urges students who want to transfer to at least complete their first semester so they don’t lose credits or academic momentum. “Typically, if they can last until February, it starts to feel like home,” she says.

Stay in touch— but not too much

A few years ago, Hamre began noticing that parents were calling her to talk about a particular test grade or assignment that their child had received while the child was still in class. “The student was calling the parent while sitting in the classroom taking the test or just after [finishing],” she recalls. “They hadn’t even gotten to my office yet to complain themselves before their parents called me.”

Hamre decided to conduct an unscientific online poll of her first-year female students. (Most of the parents calling her had daughters at Macalester.) How often, she asked the students, did they communicate with their parents?

The results astounded her: “On average, our young women were talking with their mother or father seven times a day,” she says. The communication took many forms: e-mail, phone calls, Instant Messenger, and text messaging.

More formal studies at other institutions have revealed less frequent, but still quite regular, contact between parents and students. A study released this spring at Middlebury College in Vermont found that students communicated an average of 10 times per week with their parents. Parents initiated most of the contact, but students didn’t object. (In fact, 28 percent said they’d like more contact with their fathers.)

“Today’s students are involved on a day-to-day, some hour-to-hour, relationship with their parents,” says Hamre. Family support is great, she says, but the parent-child “electronic tether” needs to be loosened if a student is to become truly independent.

“Some students aren’t making decisions until they call their mom,” Hamre says. “Or they’re not interacting with other students as they walk across campus—instead they’re on their cell phones, talking with a parent. Or they’re not staying up all night talking about how they’re going to save the world—they’re text-messaging their parents on their laptops.”

The Middlebury study found that students who initiated contact with their mom or dad three or more times a week were more likely to be emotionally dependent on their parents. Their parents were also more likely to be involved in the student’s academics—a big negative, as the study also found that students who take responsibility for their academic life are more satisfied with their academic performance and with their overall college experience.

That’s not to say you should never contact your student to find out how things are going. Just don’t make it a daily habit.

Of course, some students go weeks without phoning home. What can you do about the child who ignores you completely? “I encourage parents to write an old-fashioned letter,” says Hamre. “Tell them you want them to take a break, and you’re enclosing $50 for them to go out to eat or to buy something. But don’t put any money in the envelope.”

You’ll hear from your child—and soon.

Expect your child to change

Often, it’s not until winter break that parents realize how much their child has “changed.” The change might be visible: a pierced lip or an ankle tattoo. Or it might be an attitudinal about-face: a refusal to attend church or synagogue with you or an accusation that you are a hypocrite for supporting an environmental organization while driving an SUV.

Try to take such changes in stride. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to have your child challenge your beliefs and behaviors, but doing so is part of growing up. “They’re going to test out some different values, whether it has to do with politics or religion,” says Treeger. “Listen to their point of view, and don’t get into a battle with them.” In the end she says, most students come back to their parents’ way of thinking. “The apple usually doesn’t fall very far from the tree,” she says.

When your child comes home for winter break, talk up front about what your expectations are for the visit—and listen to your child’s expectations. Negotiate. “Your child has had quite a bit of independence at school,” says Hamre, “so let them have a little bit of freedom at home without feeling that they’re getting in trouble with you or impinging on the rest of the family.”

Oh, and don’t alter your child’s space at home, at least during that first year. “Students like to come home to their own room,” says Savage. “I had one student tell me, ‘My mom changed my room into a sewing room, which was bad enough, but she also painted the walls gray.’ ”

Trust your child

When you go to a children’s playground, you’ll notice three basic types of parents, says Treeger. Some hover around their child, always fearful that he or she will fall or otherwise be harmed. Others sit on a nearby bench, talking with friends or immersed in a newspaper, oblivious to their child’s actions.

Then there are those who sit on the bench, but watch their child with interest, responding enthusiastically when he or she climbs to the top of the jungle gym and cries, “Look at me, Dad!” or scoots down a long slide and shouts, “Watch this, Mom!”

Throughout your child’s life—including during the college years—you want to be in that third group of parents, says Treeger. “Be the parent who is a kind of anchor,” she says. “Be there to express pleasure and joy at your child’s exploration and accomplishments, but don’t hover around them and try to rescue them from every problem they encounter.”

“It’s a tough tightrope to walk,” adds Wagner. “You want to stay connected to your child, but you also have to let go.”

Barradas, the Carleton student, offers even simpler advice to newbie college parents: “Just relax, and trust that you raised your kid well.”

Susan Perry is a Minneapolis writer who wishes she had written this article before her two children went off to college.