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For Parents of College Freshman, From a Former RD

Let’s get it out there – I am not the most “in shape” of individuals to ever hit the streets.  Sad thing is, I used to be.  When working at Pepperdine University as a Resident Director, I started to run…and run I did.  What started off as 1 mile quickly turned into 4 and 5 mile jogs that slowly began to melt off the pounds.  But it didn’t start that way.  The first mile is the hardest.

In many ways, going to college is like running lap 1 of a 4 lap mile after having not ran in years.  Each lap represents the general development of the college student.  In lap 1 (Freshman), runners tend to “sprint” around the track, feeling like the run is easy.  In lap 2 (Sophmore), they realize that sprinting isn’t an effective way to maintain pace, and they begin to “struggle.”  Lap 3 (Junior) is about “sustaining” from laps 1 and 2 with a focus on the end of the race.  Lap 4 (Senior) is about “succeeding” or as my Father calls it – finishing wel.

Let’s talk about lap 1 – the sprint lap.  This is what your full time freshman college year student is going to do.  And they should.  Unusual things are going to start to occur for them, especially if they are the oldest.  They won’t have to report back to you about what they did the night before, or set up a time to be home.  They won’t have to show you their homework to get your permission to go out.  They don’t need you like they used to.  And that can hurt for parents, but it feels mostly awesome for the newly minted adult.

The lap 1 “sprint” is a bit chaotic because the new phase of life called “adulthood” has kicked in.  They are becoming independent.  That’s good (unless you want them living in your basement for the next 25 years).  Their moral development will continue in independent settings when doing the right thing is not dependent on your discipline, so much as it is in their natural consequences.  If they are late for an International Programs meeting and get locked out, they feel the foolishness of that decision and have to deal with it.  If Mom or Dad say “go to the meeting or else,” they’ve learned they don’t want to tick off Mom and Dad.  That doesn’t help your son or daughter grow and develop.

And that is the goal of lap/year 1 – encourage them to try things.  They will succeed in some and fail in others.  But above all they need to try them out.  They need to develop their passions.  Let them learn what their limits are, and find new pleasures as they see how their strengths pay off.

As a parent, your job this year is to begin and continue to let go.  Here are 3 ways you can do that:

1)   Give them water when they ask, not when you perceive they are thirsty

You may want to get out and run on the track with your son or daughter splashing water on their face every few steps…but you can’t.  While you may want to keep passing the metaphorical water cup of parental wisdom whenever you see it fit, it doesn’t help.  Let them ask you for it.  The best advice given is the advice that is asked for. 

So, if they are talking to you about their day, listen.  If they tell you about a difficult decision, don’t rush in and give them advice.  Let them ask you for it.  Then, be careful about how much you dispense.  Let them process the options and walk along side them as they carry that out.  They likely stopped drinking the parental Gatorade a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean you can’t watch them run and cheer them on

2)   Stop getting the runners status…just let them run

As an RD and therapist on a college campus, I ran into many college students who were still attached at the umbilical cord of Mom’s life well past move in day.  The evidence was in the literal 5-10 phone calls and multiple texts in between per day.

That’s too much. 

 

That’s no longer about your son or daughter, that’s about you. If you have issues about the college life you never led, or the marriage that is starting to hurt now that your son or daughter has moved out – go see a therapist.  And no, your adult son or daughter don’t count as clinician’s, even if you’ve placed them in that role many times before.            

They need to focus on school, socializing, and developing the first independent skills that come with living under a different roof.  They need to be in contact with you in this very life changing, special time.  But they also need to let go.  Your constant contact with them does more harm than good.

3)   Equip the coaches             

You know how at your kid’s baseball, soccer, or basketball games there were always the parent’s who swore they could coach better than the coach?  And you know how that particular parent would scream and yell from the bleachers?  And do you remember how annoying that was?  Yeah, that annoyance still applies in college. 

Don’t undercut your kid’s professors.  Don’t chew out the residence life staff because they are making your adult son or daughter confront their roommate instead of letting them move out over personal differences (hint – those skills are quite helpful in being a human being who lives with others).             

Instead, join with the staff.  Call the staff and ask how you can support them at this point in the year.  If your son or daughter are stuck in their room playing Warcraft or XBOX, ask the RA or RD about how you can help them socialize rather than complaining that your son or daughter do nothing.  You have no idea how much more helpful this is in the long and short run.

Lap 1 is going to leave your son or daughter winded – and it will leave you that way too.  But what is the end goal here?  What is being developed?  What is all this time, money and distance supposed to produce?  If you are answering those questions for yourself, the answer is simply that you are watching your adult son or daughter begin to be independent.  And that’s beautiful.  They are taking what you have poured into them and they are applying it.  They are testing it.  Your child is now using the strategies you used to run your race as you have run it so far.  

May you each run and finish well.

Comments

Thanks Chris this is great info! I will pass it on! I love the analogy.

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About
Christopher is a Marriage and Family Therapist completing his license in Southern California.  He loves to write about films, make music, and spend time with his lovely wife.


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