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Two Simple Rules for Parents of College Freshmen

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I’ve been through it. Believe me when I tell you that there are a few simple guidelines for your own responses to your college freshmen’s problems. They will have issues adjusting to the academic rigor, the creepy roommates, and the general challenges that come with learning how to live on their own for the first time. Remember they are young, strong, and smart or they wouldn’t be there. It’s you I’m concerned about, you and sleepless nights worrying about your kid’s well-being. Sure they get exhausted, but it’s a completely different kind of tired when a young person is eighteen.


When my son and my daughter first went to college, I was so excited for them. We bought really cool sheets, pillows, comforters, little refrigerators, fans, extension cords, and nice new clothes—everything they needed to make them happy and comfortable in their new environment. The hardest thing for me was to change the way I parented. It took me a long time to come to the conclusion that I needed to figure out how I could really help them and keep my sanity.


I developed two rules. One for them and one for me. The first is for the students, the call-back rule. And for the parent, the reassurance rule.


Don’t be surprised when your young adult calls you at 10:00 p.m. and unloads all her worries (financial aid, unreasonable professors, roommates bringing in boys, etc., rashes, fevers, sickness, whatever). My kids would talk, cry, or whine for an hour or so, unloading all their worries. I’d get in bed at 11:30 p.m. unable to let go and sleep. Their troubles firmly clutched to my heart, I would lie away for hours. I would feel so bad for them. They may even tell you in their third week they are flunking out; they simply can’t do it what is being asked of them.


But here’s the kicker. I’d call them three or four days later to see how things were going. This is the response I would get: “Oh, I talked to the professor two days ago [or the R.A., or the counselor, etc., fill in the blank] and everything is okay.” So, this is when you tell them the call-back rule. As soon as the issue is resolved, they must call to tell you. Otherwise, you are dragging around your kid’s problems, when they themselves stopped thinking about it long ago. And remember this: At 10:00 p.m. when you are settling down for the evening, college students are just getting ready to go out for the night!


The other rule, reassurance, is what they need. No matter the problem (except for incarceration, pregnancy, or entering rehab), the answer is “I know you can do this” or “What do you think you should do?” Also in some extreme cases, “I have some advice. Do you want to hear it?” That covers most everything. What they really need to hear is that you know they can solve it. If it’s extreme, colleges have great counseling departments that are virtually free. Let them know you are there, but still do everything you can to encourage your student to solve problems themselves.


My mother used to say, “No one ever listens to me. I’ve got all this wisdom and no one listens.” I feel the same, but trust me. Your job is to help them get through it, not to fix it all. That’s their job.

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