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Jacob Goldsmith, Ph.D.
• August 13, 2018

The transition to college is a balancing act for students and their families. Too little engagement can leave a student feeling lost or disconnected, and can leave parents feeling like they’re in the dark. Too much engagement (e.g., so called helicopter parenting) can actually interfere with students’ growth and development. Families should shoot for a balance that is empowering to the student and still allows parents to provide support and input where appropriate. This sweet spot between the two varies from family to family.

Parents are likely over-engaged if they are in the driver’s seat throughout the whole transition to college, or if stepping in to solve problems is a default mode for the family. Over-engagement is problematic primarily because college is a time when emerging adults need to begin to take control of their own lives, experience discomfort, take appropriate risks and make mistakes and learn from them, all in service of developing their own identity. Parental over-involvement can communicate that failure is bad, that there is one right way to do things, and can be disempowering.

Appropriate parental engagement stems from mutual understanding and good communication. Parents should start by thinking about their own specific young adult, her or his strengths and weaknesses. Different emerging adults need different support, but in all cases, parents should think not just about preventing problems but also what sorts of help might facilitate growth. In an ideal situation, the family acts as a “home base” for the student — knowing that the family is there to provide empathy, understanding and tangible support if necessary helps the student feel comfortable growing into the college experience.

Problems can and do occur during the transition to college. Before emerging adults leave for college, parents can initiate conversations about alcohol, personal safety and sex. As The Family Institute’s Alexandra Solomon notes in a recent article in Psychology Today, August to November is by far the most frequent time for sexual assaults to occur on campus — she recommends direct conversation about sexual health and safety as a preventative measure for families.

As college begins, some separation is obviously appropriate, but a total loss of contact is not. Families should set expectations for communication. Parents need to be able to check in, and to ask “how are you doing?” If emerging adults need more space, it is appropriate that they ask for it rather than simply withdrawing. Likewise, if parents are concerned that their student is under-functioning or struggling, they may choose to push for more communication. Ultimately, what is more important than the amount of communication is the quality of communication. Positive communication is empathic, respects boundaries and empowers students to take an active role in connection to the family — this leaves the door open so that if and when problems occur students will feel comfortable reaching out.

Clearly, there’s no one right way to strike a balance in parental engagement, and a healthy relationship will look different for different families. In navigating the transition to college, parents will encounter many points where they must decide whether and how to engage and intervene. There are three overarching questions that parents should ask themselves to guide the process. First, when assessing the situation, rather than asking what is healthy or normal in general, ask what is healthy or normal for your particular kid. Second, when deciding to increase engagement or to somehow intervene, ask yourself “who is in the driver’s seat here?” Is the engagement being driven by you, or by your student? If you are the driving force (which is sometimes necessary), you can still empower your student to be a part of the decision-making process. Finally, in deciding how to provide support, ask yourself whether the intervention is enabling or facilitating. Enabling is problematic — it means that you are doing something for the student. Facilitating means facilitating growth — providing support that will help the student learn to do it alone next time.

Jacob Goldsmith, Ph.D.

Clinical Director, Psychotherapy Change Project
Coordinator of Clinical-Research Integration
Clinical Lecturer
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

As the clinical director of the Psychotherapy Change Project, Dr. Goldsmith leads a team that creates and studies tools for integrating empirical information into therapy practice.