Guest article by Natalie Kemp, MA, LPA, University of Mount Olive Department Chair for Psychology
What an exciting opportunity it is to watch a child grow into a young adult and start a new chapter of their life at college. There are so many new experiences and relationships to consider as students have the chance to break out from under the supervision of the adults in their life and make their own identity and choices independently. For some, this will be an easy and positive transition, but for many it will be filled with anxiety, fear and doubt. Of course, students will feel those emotions too, but what about the parents? Students get to embark on a fresh start, but many parents have great difficulty dealing with this time of separation and relocation. It is important for parents to recognize their own fears and sadness as they drop off their college freshman for the first time. When dealing with the anxiety of bringing your freshman or transfer student to school for the first weekend, the acronym RELAX may be helpful.
Relationship shift: Recognize that there will most likely be a relationship shift as students live away from their families. When adults and children live in the same home, a familiar routine with rules and boundaries are generally established at a young age and are adjusted as the child matures and grows. However, ultimately the parent is in charge and the responsible party. Once a student enters college, the parent no longer has control of the choices that the student makes. It is time to trust that the training and teaching that went on for many years will actually stick and turn into good habits and routines. For example, students will have to wake up on their own, attend classes, and make sure that they eat in a healthy way. They will form new friendships and parents will have to trust from afar that they are making good decisions. Parents will slowly be able to see their children as young adults and their relationships will shift from a nurturing role to a more distant supportive role.
Expectations: Parents have certain expectations that their student will come home at night and call if there is a problem. In college, schedules are quite different and communication with parents may be more sporadic. Instead of talking to one another every day, it may be reasonable to only get a text a few times a week as students are busy attending class, studying and starting a new social life. Parents should not interpret this as a lack of love, but rather a shift in the expectations of communication. Trying to set up a weekly face time call can help parents stay connected and help students feel a sense of freedom, but with a familiar comfort as well. Parents should not make students feel guilty about pursuing new relationships, as it is important for them to still feel a secure bond at home.
Let go of control: It is easy to tell people to let it go, but that can be difficult to put into practice when it comes to giving up supervision of a child as they become an adult. Accepting that there will be mistakes and miscommunications throughout the new college experience is part of the process. When adults try to monopolize and completely run a child’s life it leads to dependency and lack of maturity. For young adults to thrive in their new independence, a level of trust must be given so they feel the freedom to grow and learn what it is that they really believe and what will make them happy on their own. Professors meet students all the time that say that their parents picked their major or just told them their whole life what their path should be. In order not to disappoint their loved ones, students often conform to the requests of others, without really thinking for themselves or exploring other options. Parents will survive this new adjustment best when they let go and let students learn from the consequences of their choices.
Advice and guidance: Advice and guidance both involve recommendations. When a student is living under the same roof as the parent, there is generally expectations or clear rules and consistent boundaries. When a college student is living in a dorm, there are general regulations to follow that usually relate to health and safety, but they may not be as stringent as the rules that are set at home. For example, there may be a curfew at home or a rule about not staying away from home on a school night. Parents can give advice about good study habits and provide guidance about how to maintain good grades and healthy relationships, but ultimately the student will make their own decisions without daily pressure. Parents should continue to offer loving advice and constructive criticism, but not be disappointed or take it personally if the student chooses a different path. God’s word tells us, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” (NIV)
Xtra time for you! Extra time for parents means going back and doing some things that used to be fun to do before having kids! This may mean revisiting hobbies once enjoyed, discovering new activities to try, or finding creative ways to use the time that was once dedicated to taking care of others around the home. Focusing on yourself and some new interests will provide something new to talk about and focus on, rather than dwelling on the quiet space and loss in the home or the anxiety over no longer having control. The best way to manage real behavior change is through behavior replacement. If you want one behavior to decrease, such as worrying over a new college student, then pick a positive behavior to increase, such as taking up yoga classes or painting. Choose to see the extra time as a positive.
As your student embarks on a new adventure, RELAX and do not let anxiety or depression overtake this exciting new season. Students have access to counseling services right on our campus, but parents should remember to take care of their mental wellness at home as well. Set a good example by choosing positive thoughts over negative ones and faith over fear. It is a great time to be the parent of a UMO Trojan!