Q: My son is going off to college in a couple of weeks, and, of course, we want it to go well, but I don't know what to expect. Can you help?
A: If you have a son old enough for college, we're assuming that you might be of the generation who would remember Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Remember "Teach Your Children"? Well, it might be a good idea to dust off a copy and listen to the lyrics -- from a whole new point of view.
Panelists for The Family Project , all parents experienced with the transition to college, plus two counselors who've worked with Lehigh Valley college freshmen, say you can't really do much in the next few weeks if you haven't been laying the groundwork for your child's successful launch into independence all along. "Ideally, you have been having lots of separations from your child," says panelist Marcie Lightwood.
"This should be something that you've looked forward to since the beginning." Mostly, when a child leaves for college, a parent has a moment to bask in pride at a job well done. Still, panelists say, it's also a complicated time for parents and kids alike, especially because both you and your child are experiencing a major life change -- and all the emotions that go with one -- at the same time. There's bound to be an ebb and flow, of holding on and letting go. (Okay, so that's not original. It seemed apt.) The big problem, of course, is knowing when to do each.
Even if this change is mostly positive, says panelist Christy Yerk-Smith, even positive changes can be stressful. For parents of departing freshmen, says panelist Linda Schneider, one big temptation may be to over-parent, something she's seen with her children's friends. These are the parents who, when they're not on the cell phone with their kids, are e-mailing them, packing goodie boxes or showing up at the dorm to visit.
With all of today's instant communication (remember when mailboxes in the student union weren't yet obsolete?), one would think homesickness among college students would be a thing of the past. It isn't, and frequent contact even "can make things worse," says panelist Yerk-Smith, who works in DeSales University's counseling office. "I still see homesick kids every October," she says. Since you have to cut the cord, don't prolong the agony, adds guest panelist and college transition consultant George Gibbs. "Get it over with."
Another parental trap: to let "buying" and "doing" block out the "feeling" part of sending a child off to school. For many parents, actually dropping a child off at college caps a hectic, high-stakes senior year of planning and preparing that gives them little chance to let their emotions register. When a kid comes home with a list of "134 things he needs to move in to the dorm," as panelist Denise Continenza notes was true with a friend's child, a frenzied trip to Target can further postpone or even disguise separation anxiety. It's okay to shed a tear or two and feel a little lonely when you leave your child, and periodically, if unpredictably, after that, panelists say. There's going to be a certain amount of grieving to do.
But the end of the nest as you've known it can be a new opportunity for you as well as your child -- socially, intellectually and emotionally. Of course, you really should keep some tabs on your son to pick up on signs of distress, panelists say, especially early on. Gibbs notes that the first 6-8 weeks of college often set the pattern of how a child will adjust -- academically, socially and values-wise -- to early adulthood. Your knowledge of your child's temperament has to be your best guide as to how he's doing.
But if, as is likely, your son calls you up saying he hates his profs, the food, his roommate and everything else about school and wants to get out now, be aware that it's not the end of the world. Unlike when today's parents were in school, says Gibbs, today about 72 percent of freshmen don't graduate from the school at which they started in four years. That compares to 47 percent 25 years ago. Many of the students who leave, he says, do go on and finish their degree somewhere. But it's quite common that a student's first college choice turns out to be a terrible mismatch. Such a call also might not be your cue to jump in the car. With kids this age, today's crisis often evaporates by tomorrow or next week or next month, says Continenza.
Don't think you have to fix everything. Just listen, she says, recalling that when her daughter once recited a litany of misgivings, she finally asked, exasperated, "What do you want me to do?" "Oh, I don't want you to do anything, Mom," she said. "I just needed to vent." Could she have been listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young?
firstname.lastname@example.org 610-820-6562 The Family Project is a collaboration between The Morning Call and parenting professionals brought together by the Valley Youth House program Project Child, the Lehigh Valley's child-abuse prevention coalition.
Tips on helping your child adjust as a freshman at college
How can you tell if your child is experiencing real distress at college during his or her freshman year? Here are some of the of normal adjustments college students need to make and how parents can help:
August Students: Anxiety about living at college increases. Relationships with friends, girlfriend/boyfriend and parents/siblings are stressed. Parents: Assist with buying supplies (don't do it yourself) and keeping tabs on how financial (bank account/debit or charge card, phone card or cell account) and vehicular (car, gas money) arrangements are set up. Recognize that departing students may push away friends, love interests and relatives out of anxiety, thinking if they're mad at these people or vice versa it will be easier to leave them; counsel your student not to make too many relationship changes when so many things are changing.
September Students: Freedom may cause routines and values to fall apart. Feelings of inadequacy may develop and self-esteem may drop dramatically when first exam grades come in. New friends need to be made and fit in with. Roommate conflicts regarding space, hours, lifestyle surface. Parents: Ask about details such as laundry and budgeting. Encourage participation in activities, including orientations and use of counseling on campus. Write or call, but not too often; ask student how often too often is. Remind student how they've been able to make new friends in the past.
October Students: Academic panic/need to set priorities surfaces over midterms. Unresolved roommate issues increase in urgency. Sports performance pressure increases. Parents: Participate in Parents Weekend to give child a break, but recognize the stress level. If child engages in exercise or physical training, encourage him or her not to drop it because of other pressures. Send a care package.
November Students: Academic pressure mounts because of looming end-of-term projects and likelihood of procrastination or difficulty of work. Depression, anxiety and alcohol issues surface. Registration for second semester brings up long-term questions, including major selection and/or transferring or leaving school. High school friends may be acutely missed. Parents: Help child have realistic expectations for academic success -- "A lot of today's doctors got C's in first-semester calculus" -- or encourage or help arrange for on-campus academic help. Praise child when he or she balances lifestyle or schedules well. Investigate counseling if you sense real distress. Be patient, and encourage patience, by urging your child to hang on for the rest of the term and/or year. Don't expect to see a lot of him or her during Thanksgiving break; set up expectations/house rules for break shortly before it happens.
December Students: Final exams and paper due dates approach at the same time as holiday/sports championship events. Money from summer earnings/bank accounts run out at time when gifts and travel demand money. Roommate situation may be intolerable. Anxiety about coming home for an extended period and January employment loom. Parents: Realize finals don't end until right before break and realize students' energy level and spirits will be affected; don't make too many holiday demands. Keep calm about money; help students think through alternatives. Get a handle on how the semester went, but postpone the serious discussions until after the holidays and, generally, follow student's lead. Rosa Salter
RESOURCES Where to turn for parents facing the send-off of a child to college: Your child's school will probably have an orientation for parents at the same time as ones for students. Take advantage of it. Also ask for help from the admissions or counseling office of your child's school. Look for private counselors who specialize in this area. One is Gibbs and Wall, Allentown, which also publishes "Campus Daze: Easing the Transition from High School to College" ($3 plus $1 postage by calling 703-836-5480 or at www.ThinkTuition.com). Two books, "The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life" by Lausa S. Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt and "Letting Go: A Parent's Guide to Understanding the College Years" by Karen Levin Coburn and Made Lawrence Treeger are available at public libraries. On the Internet: Good places to start are: www.zmfact.com/cic/reports/education/survive.htm, www.dodgeglobe.com/stories/083102/lif_college.shtml and www.reslife.net/html/pfirstyear_0900a.html.
CONTACT THE FAMILY PROJECT To offer comments, suggest topics or ask questions. E-mail: email@example.com. Mail: "The Family Project ," c/o Morning Call Features Editor Linda O'Connell, P.O. Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260. Phone: 610-820-6562.
THE TOPIC TEAM Parenting experts who helped with this installment of The Family Project : Denise Continenza, family living specialist for Penn State University's Lehigh County Cooperative Extension, South Whitehall Township. Ann Friedenheim, clinical supervisor for Confront, Allentown. George Gibbs, former dean of admissions and freshmen at Muhlenberg College, Allentown, now partner in a high school and college educational consulting firm, Gibbs and Wall, Allentown. Marcie Lightwood, program coordinator for Project Child, a program of Valley Youth House. Joanne Nigito, registered play therapist and parenting educator, Bethlehem. Linda Schneider, social worker at Family and Counseling Services of the Lehigh Valley, Allentown. Christy Yerk-Smith, assistant director of the counseling office at DeSales University, Center Valley.
PARENTING CLASSESProject Child offers ongoing parenting classes Mondays at 7 p.m. at the Project Child office at 2200 W. Broad St., Bethlehem. Fee: $15. To sign up, call 610-419-4500, Ext. 373, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.orgCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times