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Family Files

Helping Kids (and Parents) Adjust to College

kids reading books

Since my son (only child) recently moved to college up north back in August, I have felt like maybe someone has died. Friends, family and acquaintances will ask how my son is liking school, and then they lower their voice, get real close and grab my arm, and ask in a serious tone “and how are YOU doing?” I totally understand that they mean well and worry about me being an empty nester, but I find it very funny. I say, “I still have food in the pantry that I bought yesterday, way less clothes to wash, and I’m not picking up every time I turn around – so things are great!”

Our children going to college can be a huge transition for them and parents alike. And who is to say which one is faring better – the kids or the parents?  Every child and family will be different, and it probably varies on whether the child has ever been on his own before and how independent they have been allowed to be. Making new friends and living without family may be a real challenge, but parents need to know that they require that challenge and will usually survive to see dramatic growth.

One thing I was told by an “experienced” college parent was to not contact my son for a few days. If he contacted me, that was fine. I needed to give him some space to figure things out. In her article in the Greater Good Magazine, author Christine Carter cautions parents about visiting right aware or bringing them home for the weekend. She says that some college students may be feeling some difficult emotions (loneliness, homesickness, etc) and that their pain can become the parents’ pain. Of course we want to do anything to eliminate that for them – but we could be making it worse. Children need to be able to struggle through the pain and discomfort so they can overcome it. These emotions aren’t ones that must be traumatic and need to be avoided. These adult children will most likely encounter adversity in their lives and will need to learn how to solve problems for themselves. They will need to learn to tolerate transitions, challenges and uncomfortable situations because life is full of them!

So what CAN parents do? We can help them feel more comfortable by helping them accept difficult feelings. Christine advises parents to:

  • Acknowledge that their child’s emotions are real and help them to correctly identify what they are feeling and help them talk through them.
  • Discourage them from avoiding those emotions though distraction with behaviors like social media, overeating, drinking, and other negative behaviors.
  • Encourage them to be kind to themselves, more self-compassionate and less critical of themselves.
  • Discourage them from comparing themselves to other people (especially on social media). Everyone is different and everyone handles situations differently. Remember, people usually put their best face forward on social media – but it may not be how they really feel.

Living away from parents (and adult children) will help build up resiliency –that inner strength and ability to get through tough times and come back stronger! So yes, my son seems to be doing great except for the occasional question about laundry. And I’m doing great because I know that I have done my job in helping him be more independent!


Source: Christine Carter, Greater Good Magazine, October 2013. Greater Good Science Center.