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Tips for Parents: Countdown to College

By — National Association for College Admission Counseling
Updated on Feb 17, 2011

The transition from high school to college can be as challenging for parents as it is for their college-bound children. Here are some tips for parents who are preparing their child for college.

Expect the unexpected.

Your child will vacillate between many emotions. She may alternate between wanting to be close and pushing you away. Remember that your child is probably torn between sadness about leaving home and excitement about the adventures ahead. Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger, authors of Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Understanding the College Years, compares this behavior to that of a two-year-old: your child may run ahead of you, but she'll still turn around to be reassured that you're still there.

Encourage independence--but offer support.

It can be tempting to do too much for your child, especially in the light of his upcoming departure. Restrain yourself from handling college arrangements for him. If your child has a question about the college, encourage him to contact the appropriate office himself. After all, your child will soon need to be responsible for dealing with the college bureaucracy himself.

"Additionally, parents should support students' decision-making about the courses they plan to take and the activities they plan to be involved in—rather than make those decisions for their sons and daughters," says Marcy Kraus, director of orientation programs at the University of Rochester. "On more than one occasion I've heard a student tell me that his mom or dad picked his fall courses for him--this is often not a good idea!"

The balance between offering support and taking over can be difficult to maintain. Students themselves may want your advice sometimes and reject your advice at other times. During this time of changing roles, good communication—and a sense of humor—are essential.

Form an informal support group.

Other parents of college-bound children can be invaluable. They can reassure you that you're not alone and give you a "reality check" about your child's possibly erratic behavior (their children are probably acting in a similar way). You can share ideas for making your children's last summer home a meaningful one. And after your child leaves for college, you can support each other as your way of life changes.

Help your child say good-bye.

Encourage your child to spend time with family and friends over the summer. Be there to talk when your child comes home from saying good-bye to a high school friend. Have some family get-togethers.

"Make occasions to restate your love, concerns, and respect for your child," says John Boshoven, counselor for continuing education at Community High School (MI) and director of college counseling at the Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detriot.

Make plans for communication.

Discuss with your child ways to communicate with you while she's at college. Many parents enjoy receiving e-mails from their college-aged children, and students often prefer this method of communication because it allows them to reach out to you on their timetable. If you'd like a weekly phone call, make that clear to your child. Once she's at college, ask her when it would be easiest to get her on the phone. Also, expect the frequency of communication to vary. Some kids get swept away by the activities of college life and neglect communication with their family. Others may call every day until they feel more at ease in their new life. It depends on the personality and college experiences of your child.

Plan the big day.

If possible, give your child some latitude about whether you accompany him to the campus. If you accompany your child, be flexible. Talk with your child ahead of time about your plans and expectations.

Once on campus, brace yourself for the brush-off. Many first-year students are eager to start their new lives sans parents. Your child may be ready for you to leave before you're ready to go. On the other hand, some students unexpectedly cling to their parents. Again, it depends on your child's personality.

One good idea is to leave your child to unpack with his roommate(s) while you run to the store to pick up any necessities. That gives your child some time to himself before a possibly emotional departure. Many colleges now offer parent orientations, which give parents some information about the college and its programs. This can be reassuring to anxious parents—and can give you the tools to guide your child in case of problems in those first weeks.

Give yourself time.

Home may seem very different without your child. If you have other children at home, remember that siblings will also go through a period of adjustment. And give yourself time to adjust to daily life without your college-aged child. You may grieve for a time or have a sense of time passing too quickly (or slowly). This is when talking to other parents can be especially helpful. In time, both you and your child will adjust to her being at college--just in time for your child to return for the holidays!

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