Let Them Go: Expert Offers Advice for Hovering Parents of College Students

Filed under: Education: Teens, Research Reveals: Teens, Expert Advice: Teens

parents of college students

It's hard watching the baby bird fly out of the nest. Credit: Mary Knox Merrill, AP


It's not unusual for parents to escort their kids to college. After all, there's so much stuff to haul, that bedbug cover really is a pain to pull on over the mattress and what if they forget to bring something critical to their safety or well-being -- like flip flops for the shower?


The college drop-off is a rite of passage that's existed for decades and it's a good thing, according to adolescent development expert Nancy Darling, a professor at Oberlin College and author of Psychology Today's Thinking About Kids blog. But, she says, it isn't just the kids who need help adjusting.

These transitions are especially hard for the person that's left behind -- the parent. Parents feel like there's a hole in their life when their child leaves the nest, Darling tells ParentDish, but the child is so excited that he or she may not feel the same way. And that can make things bad, because they're both in different places.

"I saw a father today sitting in the diner with his daughter and two friends," Darling says. "When his daughter went off to get a smoothie with her friends, he looked bereft ... He was so sad, he seemed like he was losing his little girl."

To help parents adjust, most colleges today have two- or three-day orientation programs just for them -- unlike years ago, when orientation was just for kids, Darling says. And, while there are sessions that inform parents about how and where their kids will be living and how they can help their kids be successful, much of the program is designed to help parents let go.

Yet, although schools have built this transition time into the schedule for both parents and kids, it still may not be enough for a growing number of parents.

"I saw dozens of parents who were here (at Oberlin) a week early this year," Darling tells ParentDish. "So they're coming early, then they're here for the parent orientation and then the kids have a whole week of orientation after that. ... Next, they'll be moving in."

In this age of helicopter parenting, it's not unusual to hear stories about parents who book hotel rooms so they can linger around town "just in case" their college kid needs them. But this can present a problem for kids.

"The goal of orientation is to help the students feel comfortable meeting other kids and figuring out what they're going to do," Darling tells ParentDish. "But it can become overwhelming for the kids. They seem guilt-ridden because they don't want to be rude to their parents, but they're excited and want to be with their friends."

To combat these "velcro parents," as The New York Times recently referred to them, colleges around the country have started to institute parting ceremonies and rituals to let parents know that it's really, really time to hit the road.

But Darling says she understands how difficult it can be for parents to let go of their college kids. It's often the first time a child is leaving home, so it's partly an issue of protection for parents. However, part of it is also projection -- the parents are feeling a loss and they want their kids to feel a loss, too, because "after all, you want your kids to miss you," she says.

Most first-year students do feel homesick, and it's normal for them to call Mom and Dad when they do. But sometimes kids can spend so much time talking to their parents that they never leave their dorm room, and that can keep them from meeting people and making friends. Parents need to be supportive of their kids leaving their room; they can say "I miss you, too," but tell their kids they need to get up and do something, like go to a study session or join a volunteer organization, advises Darling.

And what does she think of all those texts, BBMs, e-mails and chats that help parents and kids stay in close contact even though they're away at college?

"Keeping in touch in lots of little ways is fine -- as long as the kid doesn't mind doing it," she says. "But if the parents' calls start to interfere, or if parents are always the ones initiating contact, it may be time to stop for a little while and give them some time to miss you."

But no matter who initiates the conversation, Darling tells ParentDish the most important advice she can give parents is to listen to what their kids are saying.

"They'll talk a lot more if you listen than if you lecture," she says. "And that's important, because it will help you to differentiate between normal homesick and feeling overwhelmed, and when they are really having problems -- like maybe they're drinking too much, or they get really depressed or feel so overwhelmed that they're really not coping well."

Darling says it's also important to help kids find solutions themselves, instead of immediately stepping in and telling them what to do.

"Getting the kids to realize what kind of resources there are and helping them think things through is really important," Darling says. "Because a parent's job is to help their kid succeed, not to tell them how to succeed and not to succeed for them."

Related: Kids May Be Away at College, but More Parents Are Keeping Them Close Through Chat

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.