Staying in touch with college-bound kids: Let go but hold on

College teen talking to parents back home

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If you’ve recently had a child go off to college, you’re likely facing a whole new set of worries. Is he getting along with his roommate? Does she like his classes? Is he eating balanced meals in the cafeteria? Is she homesick?

Worrying like this is completely normal, but calling every few hours to check in probably isn’t.

This time in your child’s life is one of great transition. It’s important to give your child enough space to do some growing.

“This period of life is when we expect people to develop the confidence to manage their own lives,” says Dr Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University, whose research is funded by NIH.

“All parents want their kids to develop smoothly, not make mistakes and avoid harm. The temptation is there to stick your hands in all the time to make sure nothing bad happens.”

Steinberg’s research suggests that though a child of 18 or 19 may technically be an adult, they have quite a ways to go before achieving mental and emotional maturity. During this critical phase in life, children are developing confidence, a sense of identity, responsibility and independence. For these skills to blossom, some independence from Mom and Dad is necessary.

For parents, this may mean staying on the sidelines when your child faces a minor emergency. If your student can’t figure out what to do if he bought the wrong textbook for a class, he may be in trouble when faced with bigger challenges later. Help him figure out where to get help on campus, rather than solve his problems for him.

Of course, you still want to find ways to stay connected to your child without hindering her growth into an adult. Experts on campuses suggest parents get comfortable with technology, particularly text messaging, email and social media–things a parent may at first find impersonal. Your teen may be more comfortable with this way of communicating.

Dr. Richard Lerner, a child development researcher at Tufts University, says he himself has learned to dispatch short messages when he wants to stay in touch with his 3 kids, now in their 20s. “If you want your kids to communicate with you in the way you want, reach out to them and they will meet you halfway,” he says.

But don’t be the one to kick off a text messaging flurry. Most of the time, let your child communicate with you first. “It’s better to put the ball in your child’s court,” Steinberg says.

One way to think of your new role is as a consultant. Ask questions and offer guidance. Steinberg says another way to think of it is you are the senior partner and your child is the junior partner. “You are there to give advice and share expertise, but your child should be the one making the decisions,” Steinberg says.

Ultimately, trust in your parenting and the fact that you’ve prepared your child well for life away from home.

If your kids are off to college

Do your own homework. Find out about the school’s resources, so you can guide your child to the right expert on campus if they need help.

Hold the phone. After the initial settling-in phase, let your child set up the frequency of your conversations.

Practice restraint. A student starting a new academic term is extremely busy. If you want to check in, try sending an email or text message. You may get a response more quickly.

Take a deep breath. Don’t ramp up the level of panic when your student tells you he lost the keys to his dorm room. Tell him you trust his judgment and let him take care of it.

Nancy J Price & Betsy Bailey

Nancy J Price & Betsy Bailey

We're Nancy and Betsy, and we've been adventuring in the digital world since the mid-90s -- truly making us that type of entrepreneurial internet pioneer Gen X is known for! We started back in 1998 and later launched -- among various other online and print projects. Our partnership has spanned decades and crossed state lines (multiple times!). Nancy currently resides Arizona, and Betsy's newest home base is Minnesota. It's been an incredible journey of collaboration and innovation. You can read more about our story here!

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