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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anna L. Patton

You have a college student, now what?

By: Dr. Krista L. Prince

CES Consultant Gretchen Averette sits at her desk
CES Consultant Dr. Krista L. Prince

For sixteen years, I saw and felt it: equal parts anxiety and excitement surrounding college move-in. The day where everything becomes real for parents and students alike. You help them check-in, unload, and unpack. Then, comes the run for last minute supplies that were overlooked or forgotten. Maybe you take them to dinner, and then it’s suddenly time to say goodbye. They’ll be off to welcome meetings and events ahead of the first day of class. You’ll be heading home a little emptier; perhaps you’ll be feeling like something is missing. Now what? Your student is (hopefully) leaning into their growing independence, but they still need you (and your support).

Here are a few suggestions for balancing these changes.

What strategies do you use to listen to your student? I once took a coaching course where we got to pick out trinkets at the end to remind us of concepts that we wanted to take forward. I got a big yellow button that said “WAIT” to place on my desk. This was an acronym for “Why Am I Talking,” and served as an important visual reminder for me during advising sessions with student leaders. If you are talking, do you need to be? Are you doing more talking than your student? How would they describe your listening? When you are talking, are you asking or telling? Shifting to asking is a fundamental change, but it takes practice. When done often and well, it can reduce resistance and foster independence, while still providing critical support.

For example, let’s pretend your student is really struggling in a class. Sharing this requires vulnerability. How do you respond? Do you tell them what to do (e.g. you should. . .), or do ask them a question (e.g. which resources could assist you?) Notice the latter brings them into the conversation and requires them to troubleshoot their own problem with your support. In another scenario, let’s imagine your student is frustrated with their roommate and they’re telling you about it. Do you respond with advice, ask questions, or just listen? What does your student need at that moment? In times like these, it can be important to ask them. For example: “how can I support you,” “are you seeking input, or just a listening ear?” Often, our natural tendency is to respond, but that may not be what the other person needs at the moment. This applies not only with students, but with our friends and family too. In addition to communication patterns, consider your communication frequency and methods too.

What is a healthy and realistic communication plan for your family? You may be used to establishing curfews, knowing where your student is, granting permissions, and other forms of oversight. Understandably, you still want to make sure they’re safe, but you no longer have these same controls, which is an adjustment. Discussing mutually agreed upon communication frequency and formats can be a helpful way to navigate this change and ease any anxiety you may have. While working in residence life, I can’t tell you how many times parents called residence life or the police because they couldn’t reach their student for a few hours. We would always initiate a wellness check, and nine times out of ten we found a sleeping student, a student who had been in class all day, or a student who needed to charge their phone. Of course, if they have stated something concerning regarding their well-being, don’t hesitate to call campus resources.

What about a visitation plan? You may be ecstatic if your student wants to come visit every weekend, but this can have detrimental effects on their transition to college and sense of belonging. If they don’t need to be home for financial, familial, or other obligations, seek to understand why they want to return home weekly. Then, support them in addressing the root cause. For example, maybe they haven’t found their niche on campus yet, their roommate leaves them alone every weekend, and/or they’re feeling bored or lonely. If they had an on-campus job, belonged to a student organization, or felt connected in another way, would they be more apt to stay? Instead of supporting them by only picking them up for the weekend, consider how you can help them identify and fulfill their own core needs.

These are just a few strategies you can try for navigating your changing relationship with your student. They can be useful at other stages and in other relationships too. If you are seeking more insight about academic success in college, please check out my collaboration with Triangle Senior Year on this very topic. You may be surprised by the various aspects of collegiate life that impact academic success.

Did you know we offer Holistic Coaching for Parents and Families with Dr. Anna L. Patton? CES Holistic Coaching for Parents, and Families is a tool to support you through these, and other, challenging educational topics.

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