Skip to main content

Transitions and Letting Go...

Entering college is a significant transition for your student, AND for you. How you deal with this change will impact each of you. For your daughter or son, college will likely be a period of intellectual stimulation and growth, self-exploration and discovery, as well as increased social involvement and autonomy. During this period, students often forge new identities as they seek to clarify their values and beliefs. As such, they may come to question or challenge many of the values you hold dear. It is important to recognize that every child will experience her or his own unique challenges and adjustments, just as every parent will have different expectations for and reactions to their child's college experience. Additionally, if your son or daughter is the first in the family to leave for college, the issues that arise will be different than if this is your last child venturing forth.

Often overlooked is the fact that the college experience is a significant transition for the parents of college students too. You may experience feelings of happiness, excitement, and pride when your student leaves for college. At the same time, you may feel a sense of sadness and pain, and have many understandable fears and concerns about your student's future and well-being. You may worry about your student's safety, or their ability to care effectively for themselves. And, you may fear 'losing' your son or daughter as they begin to function more independently, and form new and deep attachments with their peers. You may also wonder how your child's performance in college will reflect on you as a parent.

Take some time to think of the significant periods of transition in your life, and during your child's development. Consider your child as a toddler - leaving your side to explore, with an occasional hasty return to the safety your presence provided. Consider him or her as a teenager - perhaps forcibly pushing you away as they explored the world. They do this with the knowledge that the safety of their 'home base' is there when they need it. Finally, consider your student's entrance into college. This is another period of transition with similarities to the development of the earlier years. In fact, many will embark upon such a transition with echoes from the past - as the struggle between dependence and independence is reawakened. A struggle between holding on, and letting go. A struggle you will both feel.

During this time, your young adult will be moving out and exploring the world on her or his own - testing values and commitments and, inevitably, testing connections with those important to them. Such transitions create some strain in even the most significant relationships and, thus, require some assimilation and change in order to achieve a new and comfortable fit. College students, although striving for independence, also need to know they have a 'secure base' to return to as the need arises. However, they generally wish to return to this 'base' on their own terms. For example, they often desire your advise and opinion, but typically only when they ask for it, and not without such invitation. These are generalizations of course, and not true for all families or all students.

As parents, you will also experience strain between the connecting, and the letting go. One part of you may want your student to solve their own problems (and trust that they can), while another part of you may wish to stay in control, to feel needed, and to protect them from the pains of growing up - the pains we faced, and we know they will face. There is no perfect answer here, and no answer protects us from the fears and pain we also experience as we see our children grow, make interesting choices, suffer the pain of lost relationships, etc.

Developmentally, college students typically struggle with issues of Identity and Intimacy. Erik Erikson, spoke of these developmental challenges decades ago and they remain as stepping stones to adulthood (although perhaps delayed a bit in our culture of extended adolescence). Young adults face ambivalence. They are confronted with a multitude of choices - tests of their values and goals, of their commitments, of who they are. Throw all this in with new classes, new friendships, new ideas, and you have quite a mix. It's no wonder that the professionals at CAPS tend to stay very busy. Below you will find some tips for dealing with this time of transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Although your students want and need to become more autonomous during this period, it is important for them to know you are still available. Maintaining a supportive relationship with them can be critical, particularly during their first year in college. If you and your child were not particularly close prior to their leaving home, it is still important for you to convey your support. In fact, you may be surprised to find that some space and distance from your child may help improve your relationship with them.

Be available, but avoid being intrusive. It is important to maintain regular contact with your student, but also to allow space for your student to approach you and set the agenda for some of your conversations. Resist the urge to call or e-mail every day, and let your student take the lead in communication. Let your child know that you respect and support their right to make independent decisions and that you will serve as an advocate and an advisor when asked. Also, recognize that it is normal for a student to seek help one day, and to reject it the next. Such behavior can be confusing and exhausting, so don't forget to also take care of yourself by talking about your experiences within your own support system. At first, university life can be overwhelming, but it is very satisfying when students realize they can weather the 'crisis of the day.'

The fact that your child has left home does not prevent family problems from arising or continuing. Do your best to refrain from burdening your student with problems from home for which they have no control. Sharing these problems with your student may cause them to worry excessively and even feel guilty that they are away from home and unable to help (however, you likely have the best sense for how your child may react to distant family issues, and will need to proceed accordingly). The college experience changes every student, and it is likely to change your family dynamics as well.

In terms of money, it is generally best to be realistic and specific with your student about financial issues, including what you will and will not pay for, as well as your expectations regarding how they will spend money. It is also important to be realistic about your student's academic performance, recognizing that not every 'A' student in high school will be an 'A' student in college. You can help your student set reasonable academic goals, and encourage them to seek academic assistance when needed.

Encourage your student to get involved in activities outside of classes. A good rule of thumb may be to try one activity related to an academic interest, one that involves service to others, and one that's just for fun. Students will meet a variety of new people using this strategy, will develop new skills and strengths, and will build networks of friends for their college years and beyond.

Students should also be encouraged to take advantage of the small classes at Eastern, and get to know their professors. The professor is the first person they should seek when they do not understand course material. Most first-year students worry that asking questions of professors or seeing professors for help may make them appear stupid. Actually, such behaviors prove that they care about learning (and professors will remember this).

Finally, remember to take care of yourself during this time of transition and change. Recognize that it is normal to have mixed feelings when your child leaves home. Feelings of pain and loss often accompany separation from loved ones. It is also normal to feel a sense of relief and to look forward to some time alone, or with your significant other, or with your younger children. Do your best to maintain your own social support network. And, do your best to maintain your own sense of well-being. This involves eating and sleeping well, exercising, and setting new goals for yourself. Perhaps this would be a good time to pursue some of the things you have put off while your children were growing up? Taking on a new project or hobby can be an excellent means to channel your energy and feelings.

© 2017 Eastern Washington University
EWU expands opportunities for personal transformation through excellence in learning.