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Campus Living: Saying Goodbye to Your College-Bound Teen

Your teen is moving on -- and so should you. Learn to parent from afar during the college years.

By Stephanie Emma Pfeffer

College Guide: Saying Goodbye to Your College-bound Teen
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Illustrations by Mario Wagner

After focusing on their kids' well-being for years, some parents have trouble taking a step back. While it's natural to worry about your freshman's decision-making skills, it's best to let him find his own way, says Emil Rodolfa, Ph.D., professor at the California School of Professional Psychology. That can be hard for parents who have relished their role as Chief Problem Solvers for the past 18 years. But a hands-off approach will make your college student more independent—and hopefully more responsible.

Emotional Rescue

Let your kid struggle. If an issue doesn't present a serious threat, don't rescue your teen. "We see students who don't know how to cope when dealing with their own problems," says Don L, Jones, Ph.D., director of counseling and psychological services at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. "They complain that someone made them uncomfortable, or that giving a presentation in class was hard. But everyone should learn how to tolerate difficult situations—otherwise they can't grow."

Resist the urge to fix things. "Sometimes kids just need to talk about what's going on," says Rodolfa. "They may want someone to commiserate, not take over." Instead of telling your kid what to do, listen to the challenges she's facing. Express confidence in his choices. Let your teen know you trust him to problem solve, says Rodolfa. Say, "I know you're smart enough to figure this out. Let's brainstorm resources on campus that can help." Suggest possibilities (go to the dean of students, visit the counseling center, find a tutor) without deciding for him. If he doesn't make the best choice, emphasize that he'll do better next time.

Show your support. When real difficulty strikes, a kid needs parents in her corner. Even if you don't approve of what your teen is doing, be available to strategize, says Jones. "Students who get their parents involved in worst-case scenarios fare better than those who have to deal with them alone," he explains.

Left Behind

It's natural to have mixed emotions about your teen departing. Don't be surprised to feel pride, relief and sadness at the same time, says Brad Sachs, Ph.D., a family psychologist based in Maryland. Use these strategies to cope.

Look outside of parenthood. "Many families revolve on the axis of their children," explains Sachs. "When they leave, parents have to rebalance their lives and seek other sources of gratification." Focus on work or pick up an old hobby. "After all, everyone had a life before becoming a parent," he says.

Rediscover your marriage. The relationship often goes on autopilot, and sometimes spouses drift apart during the child-rearing years. "When a teen leaves for college and a couple is alone again, they have time to reconnect," says Rodolfa.

Relinquish your hold. Kids can sense when parents feel obsolete or neglected and may inadvertently create reasons to get in touch, warns Sachs. "A teen who is made to feel guilty about leaving home might self-sabotage and 'have' to come home by neglecting his studies or partying too much."

Reaching Out: The New Rules

Just because you can communicate with your student anytime, day or night, doesn't mean you should. "Years ago, students had to wait in line for a pay phone down the hall to call home," says Tom Ellett, Ph.D., senior associate vice president for student affairs at New York University. "These days, families face the challenge of deciding how connected they should be." While parents and kids are closer than ever—the cost of education has parents especially invested in their students—it's important to give them space, Ellett says. So how much calling, texting and video chatting is too much? "The key to communicating is not how often, but what you engage about," says Ellett. "It's fine to check in, but a parent shouldn't become a fourth roommate, an academic advisor or a career counselor. Let the university do its work."

Family psychologist Sachs agrees that parents and students need to find a balance. "The technological umbilical cord that exists today can reduce separation anxiety, but it can also prevent young adults from learning to solve problems on their own," he explains. Plus, having an instant connection to everything that is not on campus—like family and friends from back home—gives students less incentive to seek new relationships, add Rodolfa.

Sachs recommends setting up a collaborative game plan before your student leaves. Ask, "Will you tell me if I am being overly involved?" On the flip side, make clear your expectations for staying in touch, like picking a time to chat at least once a week.

Missing Mom and Dad

"If your kid calls saying she's homesick, don't respond with, 'l'll be there in two hours,'" says Jones. Instead, reassure her that it's natural to feel lonely now. Normalize the experience by reminding her it's common and not a sign of weakness. According to Jones, many homesick kids just haven't connected with anyone on campus yet.

Encourage your student to get more involved, whether it's with the French club, a hiking group or the ultimate Frisbee team. And try not to let her come home every weekend, or she might not feel as motivated to find friends.

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