The transition from high school to college can be a reverse metamorphosis. Second semester seniors confidently peacocking during graduation devolve into tremulous froshies, their eagerness to leave the nest replaced with newfound appreciation for the security of home.
So what’s a concerned parent of college-bound children to do? In short, let go.
“The thing about letting go is, you’ve been doing this since you first stood over the baby’s crib and said, ‘Do I pick this baby up, or let him cry himself to sleep?’” says Karen Levin Coburn, co-author of “Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years.”
Drawing from her recently revised and updated book, Coburn breaks down what it means to let go of college-bound kids step-by-delicate-step, from applications to the dorm.
The application process: The temptation to micromanage a senior’s applications might be high — particularly if said student is withholding or blasé about the process. But give a kid some credit. “It’s the rare student who’s a senior in high school who doesn’t think about it, but [sometimes] something is stopping them,” explains Coburn, who notes that fear and anxiety in students might be mistaken as laziness or indifference by parents. Helping a student get organized or offering to devise a joint list with questions about their college search are ways to gently steer without pushing.
Whatever you do, don’t overreach. Says Coburn, “If you take over and do everything for your child, that’s not helping them become more confident.”
The campus visit: Here’s the conundrum: High school seniors might have a list of potential colleges a mile long, but many parents don’t have the time or resources for extensive college visits. Coburn suggests parents take their kids to “visit a large university, an urban college and one that is more remote,” preferably in close proximity to home, so students can get a feel for different types of schools. Once there, let go of the reins. “My suggestion is that if parents go on the tour, they essentially keep quiet and let the student ask the questions,” says Coburn. If possible, allow the student to explore independently, or with an alum from their high school.
The separation: When kids go off to college, we tend to focus on their growth, but parents experience a profound shift as well, explains Coburn. In some cases, it’s parents, not their kids, who need comforting. “I think with this constant accessibility, with texting, parents have to ask themselves, ‘Am I calling for me, or for my child? Am I calling because I need someone to help me feel less lonely?’” If a parent touches base with a brief text, that’s fine. But what’s not fine are ongoing “I miss you” or “I’m so lonely” texts from parents, which are basically “asking the child to be homesick” and “make them feel like they have to take care of their parent.” “The place where this is most challenging, I’ve found, is a single mother with a daughter,” she says.
Boundaries, parents, boundaries.
The empty nest: For parents who are unclear when to rush in with a safety net once a child flies the coop, Coburn suggests thinking back to those early days on the playground. “A parent who is constantly hovering over them, in the sandbox with their child and not letting them negotiate things with other little toddlers is one extreme, and the other is the parent on the park bench, on the phone, waiting till somebody else’s mother or father has to come in and grab their child,” she adds. “When a child goes to college, they need the same thing.”
As in all things, seek balance. The glitch, as a student once put it to Coburn, is that “sometimes we want your advice, and sometimes we don’t, and the trick is we’re not going to tell you which time is which.”
There you have it, parents. The kids — even yours — are alright. Most of the time.