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The Importance of Parental Support During the First Year of College

By and — Diversity in Education Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010
Adjusting to college is a major transition in a young adult’s life. For many, the transition includes moving out of the family home for the first time (Seiffge-Krenke, 2006), making new friends (Duchesne, Ratelle, Larose, & Guay, 2007), and facing increased academic demands (Duchesne et al.). Young adults are also searching for independence in their lives (Zarrett & Eccles, 2006). At the same time that first-year students are striving to reconfigure the relationship with their parents in ways that support their increasing need for independence, they also maintain the need for support and connection (Gottlieb, Still, & Newby-Clark, 2007). Due to a lack of life experiences, students may not be able to deal with this period of transition and stress on their own.
 
To better understand how parents can help their children adjust to college, we conducted a study with a diverse group of college students. From our findings, we believe there are some things that all parents, regardless of ethnic background, can do to support their children during this transition.
 
We conducted group interviews with an ethnically diverse group of students (36.4% White, 40.9% Hispanic, and 22.7% Black) attending a public university in Texas. We asked students to talk about how their parents supported them as they transitioned to college and what they wished their parents would have done differently.  

What We Learned about First-Year College Students

Based on our findings, we concluded that support from parents usually helps children adjust to the first year of college. However, if this support is delivered in the wrong way it can actually hinder their children’s adjustment. Understanding how the same factors can both help and hinder students is useful as parents negotiate the changing relationship with their adult child.

Ways Parents’ Support Facilitates Adjustment

During group interviews in our study, students described different ways their parents showed support:
  • Students acknowledged that parents’ willingness to pay for college was encouraging because it freed them from worrying about college expenses.
  • Students described the emotional support they received from their parents.
  • Students also valued the support they received from parents’ letters, packages, and phone calls. Although letters and packages were not as common as phone calls, the students all expressed joy and excitement when they received a package or letter in the mail. Students indicated that they appreciated the time family members put into preparing the packages because they demonstrated how much they cared.

Ways Parents’ Support Hinders Adjustment

One surprising finding was that although some students appreciated phone calls from their parents, others felt parents had ulterior motives for calling.
  • For these students, parents’ phone calls were a source of pressure.
  • For example, one student described how his mother called him while she was going through a difficult divorce, while another student discussed how her mother often asked why she did not choose a school closer to home.
  • In these instances, students felt their parents were calling to receive, rather than provide emotional support. As a result, students might have felt obligated to return home to spend time with their families than spending time on campus settling into college life.  
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