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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.
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."