Parents and their children really get a bad rap these days. Ask any university or college professor and they'll have a story of when a parent called them up to complain about a grade. Back in my day, they'll say, parents dropped their kids off and we didn't hear from them until Thanksgiving — kind of like throwing people in the deep end of the pool to learn to swim.
Young people are chastised for being overly dependent and entitled, and parents get blamed for bubble wrapping their children.
Helicopter parenting has entered pop culture lore, sort of like ripples from the helicopter crashing into a building in The Matrix (parents will get the reference).
Is that really the case?
To some extent, there's both more pressure and more opportunity, at least among the affluent and middle-class, to monitor children up through their teenage years. Starting with baby monitors, continuing with planned after-school activities and constant cell phone contact... that's a high level of supervision. Parents get more than enough conflicting advice about how much supervision is too much.
Then comes university or college. How do those newly independent young people and their parents cope?
Every summer we have orientation sessions for incoming students and their families. We separate out the students and parents, and I work with a couple of hundred parents at a time. We joke that it is a kind of large group therapy session. These are folks who are understandably nervous, particularly if they didn't attend post-secondary themselves.
Think about some ways you've managed transitions in the past — moving, starting a new job or having a kid, for that matter.
We talk about resources, transitions, expectations, academics, careers — but by far the most popular part of the workshop is the role play.
One of our student staff members and I do an unscripted improvisation. I'm Mom, and I'm Skyping my student. The first go-round I'm the "bad" parent: overbearing, interrupting, leaping in to solve a problem even before the student can really describe it. Basically being a pain. We get a lot of laughs. During the second round, I'm using active listening, coaching the student on problem-solving, and encouraging them to access resources themselves.
Almost every session, at least one brave parent admits to the group: "That first one — I think that might be me."
So, what's a parent to do?
One thing to remember is that having a student starting college or university is also a huge transition for the family. Think about some ways you've managed transitions in the past — moving, starting a new job or having a kid, for that matter. What are some things that built your confidence? How can you apply them to supporting your student in becoming independent?
There are some things we know are strong contributors to student success at the post-secondary level, beyond academic capability. Resiliency, motivation, help-seeking behaviour, self-awareness and self-efficacy are all strong predictors of how well a student will cope.
- Resiliency: Has the student experienced challenges or failures? Do they have strategies for identifying what went wrong and how to cope with it in the future? Resiliency doesn't address systemic issues such as racism or poverty, but it does help individuals to bounce back from adverse circumstances.
- Motivation: Does the student have clear goals? These can be academic and career-oriented, and can also be related to what they want to do in life more broadly. Being able to articulate their goals helps with choosing academic and extra-curricular activities.
- Help-seeking behaviour: Does the student know what to do when things go wrong? Do they seek help and advice early or wait until it's a crisis? Accessing resources in a timely way can make all the difference.
- Self-awareness: Does the student know what their strengths are and how to leverage them for success? What are areas they need to work on? If a student can analyze what has contributed to a situation, they are often able to solve it more easily.
- Self-efficacy: How much experience does the student have in coping for themselves? Do they have confidence in their capabilities, and are they good at problem-solving? The more responsibility a student has before starting their post-secondary education, the more efficacy they are likely to have.
Well before your student finishes high school, giving them the opportunity to make mistakes can be a gift. But it's often difficult for parents to sit on their hands. Catching yourself solving problems for your kid, instead of helping them to solve it for themselves? Try asking "What have you tried so far?" instead of saying "Let me deal with that for you." That can really change the dynamic.
There's a lot for parents to worry about. Just about every day, a major news site has a story on campus mental health, on sexual assault, on youth suicide. These are not new problems, and I strongly welcome us talking about them more openly than we used to. But it's scary. No wonder parents worry.
Most students exceed expectations when it comes to learning how to cope.
When a 17- or 18-year-old student starts university or college, they are adjusting to a new way of learning, new expectations, more independence (including if they continue to live at home), more need for life skills, more ways to carve out their own social niche and identity. And every year I see hundreds of new students making that transition very successfully. For the ones who struggle, we all try to provide support.
I see parents as a key part of their student's support system. Parents may be the first people students tell about a problem, so the more confident they are about their students' capabilities, the more they know about resources and options, and the better they are at coaching their students to solve problems, the more effective they are as a resource.
And most students exceed expectations when it comes to learning how to cope.
So maybe parents don't need to hover quite as much as they thought.
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