26 Aug The Checklist: Saying Goodbye to our College Freshman

BY DONNA RIAL-MAKER, D.Min., M.Ed., M.A., LPC

Sending a child off to college is a time for both celebration and uncertainty.  The freshman checklist can be daunting: application, registration, tuition, books, living supplies, moving trucks, and goodbyes. We can check off most of these items with a nod and a marker. But that last one—the goodbye—brings a groundswell of emotion to both parents and children. Parents are caught in an odd limbo—how much should we continue to parent, and how much should we let go? We expect our almost-grown children to be independent… but to what extent?

Then there are those adjustments that may not have made our checklist: separation anxiety, homesickness, financial allowances, boundaries, visits, and so much more.  All these things should be discussed ahead of time, but in a context of celebration—not under hurried or stressful conditions.

Parents, suggest to your young adult that there are issues you need to discuss and resolve together before fall classes begin. Bring up these topics, and allow your teen to contribute to the list, as well. Try to keep the discussions lively and full of hope, so as not to generate tension or anxiety.  We help create a calm environment when we let our teens know that we trust them do well. If they sense that we do not trust them, they may begin to question their own readiness for the college years.

Here are some things to remember:

1) First, discuss.  Avoid the one-way, parent-to-child lecture. Ask your college-bound teen child what he thinks about each issue—allow him a real voice. Give real respect to his thoughts—even if they are hard to hear. This kind of interaction might be your the first initiation into parenting  the  not-quite-an-adult child; it can be either an intimidating or a relaxed, approachable experience. Be sure to consider everything your teen says.  If you disagree completely, table the discussion and come back to it later, after you have had time to think through a calm, well-reasoned response.  If he feels you are trying to understand him, he is more likely to listen to what you have to say.

2) Allow your teen the freedom to explore, but also allow her the gift of feeling the consequences (good and bad) for her own choices. Remember, the freshman year is a time of growing self-responsibility—with an emphasis on the term self. College freshman can find this daunting and/or adventurous; either way, she will test her new boundaries. You will not be on the scene, so you will not be able to control these boundaries as you did when they were at home. You cannot rescue her every time she gets into a freshman bind. Of course, there must be balance—she needs to know she can call you any time, that you will certainly be there for her in unavoidable emergencies.  But discuss this before she leaves the nest.  Tell her that she will have to wrestle with her own self-inflicted pains (i.e. oversleeping, poor studying habits, or overspending) and find a logical, accountable way to manage.

3) Use a tone of celebration to convey to your child that you—the parent—are going to be okay. Sometimes teens feel that they are abandoning their parents, especially if parents are overly emotional, clingy, or demanding. Don’t let your anxiety steal the joy of this time from your child.  Teens need to know that we are freely letting go, and blessing them in this new adventure. They need to be free from this guilt so that they can fully enjoy the freshman experience.

Of course, many parents do struggle with separation issues, and these are real pains that must be addressed with gentle guidance and healing. But your child should not be part of this process. As difficult as it might be, take this struggle to your spouse, counselor, or minister. Remember, your emotional health is equally important. If you begin feeling overwhelmed or depressed over the separation, do seek help.

4) Come to an understanding with your child concerning his visits home, your visits to the college, phone calls, emails, allowance, how much you need to know about his grades and study habits, etc.  How much is too much? How much is too little?  Your freshman needs to feel comfortable as he transitions from living at home to living alone. Too much can hinder his independence; too little can cause him to feel that he has no lifeline. Striking a balance early on can help avoid major conflicts later.

5) Finally, remain reasonably flexible after the big move. The freshman life is full of change. Your child is making new friends; her social and academic life can be full of surprises. While you want to teach her to honor her commitments back home, it is certainly sensible to allow appropriate “wiggle room”.

The freshman checklist can be daunting, but it is necessary. Some of its items are easy. But the emotional checklist requires our most diligent attention.  As parents, our emotional support will be the structure that upholds our teens’ sense of security. Our tone of voice, our calm manner, and our happy sense of celebration must be packed first—before the toothpaste and laptop.  Through our absolute blessing of the experience, our college children will begin to form their individual identity as happy, well-rounded, and independent young adults!

About the author: Donna Rial-Baker is a psychotherapist, doctor of ministry, professor, writer, and public speaker. She can be reached at www.donnarialbaker.com