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  • Writer's pictureDr. Brian Harke

Parents, Lost In The College Transition

While researching and working with new college student transition, I have noticed that the transition can often be more difficult on parents than students. This makes sense when you consider that for the past 18 years you have been there to support your son/daughter through struggles with life, schoolwork, dating, the prom, etc.

Through good times and bad, most parents have been close by to share in their student's lives. When students move away, many parents find themselves struggling with the confusion associated with the transition and asking "what role do I play now"? I have talked with many parents who feel confused, overwhelmed and bewildered when a student moves away to college. So I'd like to share some insight I have gained from these conversations.

The insight I share may not always be universal, but I bet that most parents can relate to some, if not all, of the points I make. Hopefully, this information will shed some light on the transition period and contextualize it as normal and expected.I have identified three distinct stages parents go through after their student has gone away to college. These include, (1) disorientation, (2) reorientation, and (3) new normal. Below I define and discuss the stages as they relate to new college student departure.

Disorientation: The loss of one's normal position or role with others and/or their surroundings as a result of change in their routine or lifestyle.

Disorientation often occurs when parents say goodbye to their student at college. At some point during the drive home or later in the first week, parents are hit with the reality that their student has moved away. After 18 years, the family dynamic has changed. During this phase it's normal to feel a sense of loss. It is not uncommon for parents to walk by the student's empty bedroom with tears in their eyes. Like any loss, this is a period of mourning. Reflecting on the past and trying to restructure one's own life, parents often struggle with letting go of the past relationship structure with their student.

Parents who get stuck in the disorientation of "loss" try to cling on to the past and often become an overbearing, over-involved parent, regardless of the physical distance between them and their student. Although I do not like the term, these parents are often referred to as a "helicopter parents." This type of parent continues to monitor and hover over their student from a distance. They call, email, text and video chat with their students two or more times a day. I've even heard of some parents who call their student each morning to wake them up. The goal here is not to stop being a parent, but to evolve into becoming a parent who supportively enables and empowers their student to solve problems and understand the responsibilities of independence.

I recommend that if parents and students find themselves needing to be in contact with each other two or more times a day, it is a good idea to set some new guidelines about communication.

SUGGESTION: Try limiting contact to certain days and times. You will always be able to reach each other at a push of a button in an emergency, but by spreading out the communication times you'll begin to break the pattern of dependence on the need for immediate and instant contact. You will also have more to talk about when you do connect.

When parents get stuck in the disorientation stage, I suggest they take the time to feel sad, confused and even mourn the loss of the old relationship they had with their student if they need to. Keep in mind that you will always be Mom or Dad and your student will always need you, however a new relationship with your student is evolving. It is a relationship that acknowledges and embraces not only their new independence but yours, too.

Often, when this is acknowledged the next stage kicks in.

Reorientation: A period of adjusting and redefining your position and role as a result of a change in a familiar structure or pattern.As you begin to adjust to the change in your relationship with your student, the reorientation stage takes place. As new boundaries between you and your student are formed, patterns begin to emerge on how the new relationship will work. There is a lot of trial and error in this phase, which can be very frustrating for parents and students.

One of the most frustrating themes that frequently pops up is the "fix-it" syndrome. When new college students hit a bump in the road and begin to panic, their first call or text message is to their parents. For many parents the first instinct is to "fix-it." Who can blame them? It is a role most parents have played in one form or another for the past 18 years. Acting out of habit, parents start making calls to the college administrators, resident advisors, and even roommates. I appreciate parents who want to help their students, so I often find myself thanking them for caring so much, but then I usually suggest they do the following:•

For 24 hours, fight the urge to react and fix-it. • Listen to your student and then take the drama out of it. Often the problem isn't as big as it first appears. • Ask the student how they think they should solve the problem. • Ask what resources are at the college to help them. • Suggest that they put together a plan of action on their own. • Let them work on the issue for 24 hours and then see how things are going. In my experience, the situation will usually work itself out, or the student realizes that they can deal with it on their own. As a result, the parents have empowered their student to embrace their independence. With that said, if the child is at risk of harm, act fast and find them the help they need. You should always have a list of emergency contacts at the college including campus security, which is reachable 24/7.

As parents and students go through the trial and error of reorientation patterns, a "new normal" will occur. However, disorientation and reorientation aren't going anywhere. They will continue to creep into the picture as students return home for visits, go abroad for a semester, stay on campus over the summer, etc. With each change comes a period of disorientation and reorientation. Patience and communication between parents and student is the key to finding the new normal in any change.

REMEMBER: There should always be an underlying current of independence for both student and parent when navigating these stages.

New Normal: Acceptance of a new framework surrounding a relationship and lifestyle.The "new normal" stage for parents and student is realized when parents and student accept the new patterns of independence in their relationship. Yes parents, you have new independence as well. Enjoy it.

In these new patterns of independence the relationship scale tends to tip more in the direction of parents acting as advisors, mentors, and yes, even friends. Ideally (if all goes well) your student takes on more ownership and responsibility for their life. They look to you for support and guidance verses someone who can fix things for them. However, don't be surprised when the phone rings and you are transported back 10 years as you hear your student say, "mom/dad, I need you."

As the ups and downs of college life play out, both parents and students will continue to experience these stages and the confusion that comes with trying to work through them. The best advice I can give, and do give, to parents is to be patient and do your best to sit through the transition. It is important that you are mindful of the changes that are occurring and maintain open lines of communication with your student (not five time a day though). If you and your student work toward recognizing each other's independence, your new relationship can be more fun and exciting.

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