Supporting Your Young Adult Child Going to College
It’s that time of year when young adults head off to college and their caregivers try to find ways to best support them. In that process, caregivers may have complex and confusing reactions to developmental changes that they see in their child. There is no one best way to manage this major transition for you and your child. The choices you make will likely depend on your cultural background and faith. That said, it might help to consider some of the developmental needs and shifts involved for both you and your child as you navigate this terrain.
The psychologist/researcher Jeffrey Jensen Arnett coined the term “emerging adult” from his research with young adults ages 18-29 related to their experience of this life stage. He found that young people are not teenagers one day and then adults the next. Instead, there is often a prolonged period of transition, change, and development that occurs from the late teen years to late twenties. Important to his concept is the idea that this is a time of self-definition, instability, self-focus, feelings of not being a “real adult,” and a sense of optimism about life’s possibilities. In contrast to earlier ideas of development, Jensen Arnett suggests that the more prolonged emerging adult stage has resulted from factors such as longer training/educational experiences that are needed to obtain well-paying employment, the high cost of such education, and changing social views about adulthood in general. In sum, it just takes longer to become an adult these days. So, how can caregivers and their emerging adults plan for the transition to college for the first time and/or returning to college?
Here are some tips to navigate this time:
Remember that your young adult might need different or shifting types of support from you during the transition to college and beyond. While they might appear very independent, they might ask you for advice about small things (e.g., doing the laundry or getting an oil change for the car), as well as big things (e.g., finding health insurance when they turn 26 and choosing a career). There may be an unevenness in what they are asking of you. As a parent you may feel cast aside at times, but deeply needed on other occasions. Encourage your child to take gradual steps as they assume more adult responsibilities so that they can practice “adulting” in your presence.
Engage your child in an open dialogue about how they want this transition to go. One point of contention among students and parents is the frequency and form of communication. For example, does your child they want a weekly call or daily texts? What do you need from your child to feel secure about their safety and well-being? If your child is living at home, they may want/need more time to study on their own or to be on campus with peers. Try to remember that your young adult’s wish for more independence and privacy is not necessarily a rejection of you and/or your values. Often it is more about them testing their pre-adult ”wings” and needing to engage in certain activities that are required of them in their new environment. Try to balance your needs with your child’s needs, while at the same time acknowledging and valuing your own cultural values. No two families will negotiate these issues in the same manner.
Try to view your young adult child’s new views as an exploration of who they might become rather than a rejection of who you taught them to be. Your child will be exposed to new ideas in college and they may be very excited about them. You may have reactions to their new views about topics such as career goals, relationships, politics, faith, gender, and sexuality. This can leave some parents confused and worried. Engage your child in curious conversation about their new ideas. If your cultural values and faith are an important part of your family life and your child is questioning them, remember that your child is learning about other cultural groups and faiths. In effect, your child may be living a bicultural life (i.e., living in one culture at home, but living in the mainstream culture outside of the home). Explain why your opinion and values are important to you, but avoid condemning your child. Your young adult child needs a trusted and loved adult with whom to discuss their evolving understanding of themselves and their place in the complicated world in which we live.
If you find yourself upset when your child has ideas that clash with your own cultural or religious views, ask yourself, “Is my child really in danger because of their views?” and “Just because my child thinks differently than me, is their view ‘wrong?’” You might also ask yourself, “Am I willing to possibly lose a connection with my child over this?” Remember that questioning what one has been taught is not unusual in mainstream American culture and does not mean that you as a parent have failed or that your child does not value your lessons. If you are from a cultural community where children are discouraged from questioning their elders, remember that your child is navigating a difficult experience living in two cultures and exercise patience with them.
Encourage your child to make healthy use of supports at their college or university. As your young adult child moves toward adulthood, they will need practice dealing with life’s challenges. Lower than expected academic performance and homesickness are not unusual during the first year of college. Help them cultivate the idea that failure or setbacks are temporary and that hard work and persistence can lead to a solution. Assist them in thinking about concrete steps that they can take to learn from the situation and build resilience. Encourage them to reach out to teaching assistants or professors and sign up for tutoring if they are struggling with classes rather than facilitating these connections yourself. If they are lonely and homesick, suggest that they consider joining a student organization or club to meet like-minded students or reach out to their resident advisor (RA) in their dorm. If you prefer that your child reach out to family members or known community members, perhaps encouraging them to talk to aunts, uncles, older cousins, and trusted faith leaders.
Promote taking care of one’s mental health as an important part of overall health. All the changes of this stage often lead young people to feel depressed, anxious, and insecure. These are expected emotions during a time of tumult and having a space to process one’s life experience is enormously helpful. Sometimes young adults feel uncomfortable talking to their caregivers about their concerns and do not want to upset them. This does not mean that they do not trust and love you, just that they need their own space to work through their concerns. Most colleges and universities have student counseling centers and that offer confidential, free-of-charge services. De-stigmatize these services for your child and encourage them to utilize them.
Seek out your own counseling if you are struggling with worries about your young adult child. Under the best circumstances watching your child grow up can be an experience filled with great joy, confusion, anxiety, and loss. As we watch our children grow, we may revisit our own development emotionally, too. Sometimes our pasts interfere with how we relate to our children. You may need a place to sort out your feelings and finetune your parenting approach to your child. If you find the idea of seeing a therapist scary, consider talking with a trusted family member or a faith leader in your community.
Helping your young adult child as they develop the skills they will need for a lifetime is an emotional process for the two of you. It is a delicate balance of staying connected and letting go. Please remember that The Family Institute at Northwestern University has skilled clinicians who can support you both through this process. The Family Institute offers individual, couples, and family therapy, as well as a variety of other clinical services. If you think that you or your young adult child may benefit from these services, we invite you to call 1-847-733-4300 or go to https://www.family-institute.org/ for more information.