Excitement and apprehension. Parents and their college-bound child experience these conflicting feelings. On the one hand, there’s a sense of freedom and accomplishment. On the other hand, there’s a fear of failing and loss.
“The good thing is,” says Kevin McCarthy, “these feelings are normal and the transition is temporary.”
McCarthy, associate dean of students at North Central College, co-leads summer orientation sessions titled “What every parent needs to know.” He, along with Julie Carballo, director of North Central’s first generation programs, talk with parents about what students experience during their transition to college and what parents can do to support and help their child.
As students transition to college, they’re exploring several areas, McCarthy says. First, they explore their competencies. They wonder: Can I do this, do I fit in or will I make the team? They question their identity and autonomy and ask: Who am I and who am I away from my parents? And they examine their values: What is the right thing for me to do?
Carballo reminds parents they have an important role during their child’s transition. Parents can be encouragers by sending emails, texts and care packages, and by listening and speaking positive words, like “You can do it” and “We’re behind you.”
She also says to give their child space: “Let them know you respect and trust their ability to make independent decisions, and that you’ll advise when needed. Let them set the agenda for some of your conversations and know that it’s normal for them to seek your help one day and reject it the next.”
Setting expectations is still important. “College is meant to be tough and they will be stretched in every way, mentally, socially, emotionally, physically, spiritually,” Carballo says. “Be clear that if they stumble and fall short of your expectations that you will always be available to help them problem solve any situation.”
Help them learn to help themselves. “This is our mantra,” says McCarthy. “Don’t fix their problems, help them brainstorm solutions.”
The duo also offers encouragement for parents. As families navigate their “new normal,” there’s a period of adjustment that’s needed, says McCarthy. “New boundaries are being formed, new patterns for how the relationship will work. There will be lots of trial and error in this phase, which can be very frustrating for parents and students.”
The final part of orientation for parents includes homework. They’re encouraged to discuss certain topics as a family before their child arrives on campus.
Those discussion topics include:
- Having a plan for academic success that includes class attendance, study hours, academic integrity, available tutoring options, connecting with professors
- Managing time and freedom
- Navigating new relationships
- Using social media
- Being involved on campus
- Making smart and safe decisions, especially concerning alcohol, drugs, sex. Regarding sexual misconduct, parents learn that all incoming students at North Central are required to take an online training module, which makes clear that the College does not tolerate sexual harassment, stalking, dating violence and sexual assault.
- Agreement on frequency and methods of communication between parent and child, access to grades and student information, and who to contact when help is needed
Bottom line: The transition to college for parent and child can be both unsettling and exciting. But with thoughtful preparation, support and guidance among all members, it can be smooth and successful.