Campus Overload: Parenting a college student

Aug 11, 2011

As students start college, they have to quickly adjust to life in an entirely new environment, keep up in more difficult classes and navigate a complicated social scene. But it's also a time of adjustment for their parents back at home who miss them dearly.

Many of today's college students are closer than ever to their parents. They are often friends on Facebook and keep in constant contact via text message. That relationship will likely change when students move out, and many schools now offer parent orientation sessions aimed at easing that transition.

What can parents do to continue to support their children without becoming a dreaded helicopter parent? Let's chat about it Thursday at 1 p.m. Eastern.

Jenna will be joined by Marshall Duke, a psychology professor at Emory University. For more than 25 years, Duke has given an annual lecture to parents about what to expect when their sons and daughters start college.

Hello -- and happy Thursday!

Yesterday I wrote about the delicate art of parenting a college student, which is frequently the topic of university-run orientation sessions for parents.

Sending a kid to college is a major time of transition -- and one that raises a lot of questions. So, let us help you answer some of those questions!

I am joined today by Marshall Duke, a longtime psychology professor at Emory University who gives an annual lecture about college students and their parents.

Let's get to those questions!

And, here's a question for all of the parents out there to answer for us: What did you learn when your student went away to college? What advice do you have for other parents?

Have parents (and their relationships with their kids) changed since you started teaching at Emory in the 1970s? How so?

Modern parents seem more used to dealing with problems actively and definitively.  They are able to do this because I believe their parents allowed them to develop these skills by letting them try to solve problems on their own, make mistakes, learn from their mistakes and grow in strength and confidence.  Modern parents need to allow their children to have the same experiences they had by taking a trusting, hands-off attitude towards their college kids and allowing them to solve their own problems.  The students will take more time and make a few mistakes, but they will be stronger for it.

A lot of first-time college parents I have talked with are worried about move-in day -- trying to remember to pack everything, the traffic, meeting a roommate, saying goodbye, etc. What should they expect? What's the most important thing for them to know?

First of all, don't try to anticipate everything that will be needed.  This is why Target stores are always located nearby college campuses!  Expect at least a half a dozen Target runs.  With reagrd to meeting roommates, getting into the dorms and such, there are always highly trained "helpers" around,  upperclass students who know everything that the students and the parents want to know.  Ask freely and often.

Saying goodbye is the most important thing of all in my mind.   Do not take this lightly.   This child starts college only once.  The moment is a powerful one.  It allows for the communication of very high level sentiments.  Think about what you want to impart on this day.  What you say will stick.   Do you want to waste it one things like, "Make your bed every day?"   Most parents see this as a chance for the broad things--moral messages, wisdom, gratitude, pride, encouragement.  If you can't say this stuff to your son or daughter without crying (like yours truly), write a letter--in longhand on real paper--and send it to your child as soon as you get home.

Finally, rest assured that the people with whom you leave your children are highly skilled and have dealt with moving in days and freshman adjustment for decades.  Trust them.

How many times a week should I expect to hear from/call my son/daughter? (p.s. I'm a parent of a recent Penn State graduate. Starting with her first semester, this was a big bone of contention for my daughter and I.)

Most parents find that communication with their children drops in frequency as time passes and the students become more familiar with and invested in their college experiences.,  This is a good sign.    If there is a sudden increase in email, text or phone call frequency,  it may signal a problem but  I always say, it is at this point that parents need to encourage kids to solve their own problems through use of campus resources.  This can be hard for parents, but it's important for the development of independence in the children.

And maybe before this school year starts, you can have a conversation with your daughter about how often she plans to call -- and how long you should wait before panicking. Sometimes setting up a basic communication plan (call every Sunday night, text message at least once a week, etc) can set expectations on both sides.

Informed us that he no longer needs our financial help to pay for college. He presented us with a corporate check drawn on his business account paying us for his last two years to the penny. Seems he and a friend started a video production company last fall and the films are a hit. They incorporated and comply with laws especially the USC. They verify all participants are 18 years old or older and his 1040 disclosed in 5mos last year he made more then twice what his parents did and we make 7 figures. His mom is a little upset.

Success comes in many forms.  I have seen many students start successful businesses while still in college.   There is that Zuckerberg fellow for example....   The nature of his business must be left up to him and the decision about how to use his income as well.  There may be a good charity that could use the money that you have saved on his tuition!!   (-:

That's so awesome! (Also, you might want to have a quick convo about how/if he plans to file his taxes. Sometimes the whole topic of "claiming a dependent" can spark problems.)

I had a very supportive mom and when it came to anything extra, like summer school at Oxford, she said if you raise half, I'll give you the other half. It worked like a charm.

This seems like a parent who was tuned into giving her children roots and wings.  Sounds wonderful.   A good idea to share.

Smart! (And much kinder than my parents' strategy: If you want something extra, better find some more babysitting gigs.)

Once a student goes off to school, what should happen to his/her room at room? Should it be kept intact, like a shrine, or is it okay for a younger sibling to take it over?

Despite living physically elsewhere, a student's room at home represents a stable and secure "home-base" (even if all he ir she does is deposit clothes and books there during vacations!).  My advice is to leave the room as it is (you can clean it up and make it presentable!) if at all possible.  To be sure, if a sibling shared the room, perhaps some more room can be assigned to the still-at-home occupant, but the students basics should be left intact.  In the case of my own grandchildren, my college grandson's bunk bed was left in place until the end of his freshman year.  When he began his sophomore year and moved to an unfurnished room, his bed was taken down and moved there.  His brotrher was happy with the added space and the college man had a touch of home in his new campus location.    I know itis not always possible to keep rooms as they have been because sometimes people are moving to new homes or doing drastic renovations.  If this is the case, there should still be somewhere in the new setting that is deemed the student's "place."

Any advice to stop the tears? I know I am going to be a puddle but I don't want to make my daughter more nervous or scared than she already will be.

It is almost impossible to stop the tears.  This is a very emotional day!  Explain that you are going to cry no matter what and just go ahead and do it.  You will not be alone....and it will not only be the Moms.  It will be unlikely, however, that the siblings will be crying.   Your tears will not make your child more nervous I think.  In very short order, there will be other people to meet, new friends to make and tons of activitries going on.   Most parents find that their children begin telling them to hit the road far sooner than the parents are ready to do so.  Cry.  No shame.  No harm.

Perfectly said, Marshall.

What should a parent do if a student calls home one week, month or semester into their first year and wants to come home? Should parents make their kids stick it out?

It has been my experience that homesickness or feelings that a bad choice has been made are fairly common and should be and can be weathered.   Do not come running if a child misses home (perhaps mirroring mom and dad's own feelings).   My advice here is to take the position that a decision cannot be made on this until the beginning of Spring semester.   Say that you are open to transfer to a different school or to a place closer to home, but that it is best to stay with the current commitment.  Add that if transfer is ultimately sought, the best stategy will be to do as well as possible in the current semester.   Don't reject the idea of changing schools, but try not to go in and pull the student out.  Time can change the way things look.

Do schools offer speeches - such as yours - to the incoming Freshman so they understand what they are going through is normal? Specifically at Emory? My daughter is an incoming Freshman and my husband and I are looking forward to hearing you in person next week!

Most schools offer some sort of orientation for parents.  They always talk about tuition and food plans and the like.  many, like Emory, also focus on the emotional aspects of the expereience of taking a student off to college.   There are also several good books on the subect of starting college.  The trouble with these is that things have changed so rapidly in terms of student life that they are out of date very soon.   For example, anything written about college adjustment before Facebook and Twitter is totally off the mark.   Much of what I tell parents each year is the same and fundamental.  Just as much changes from year to year.    I look forward to seeing you here in a few weeks!

Yup -- it's not just speeches, but days of speeches! And for parents who don't have that option, a lot of schools share their materials online. Plus, there are books, websites, online forums, videos, you name it.

But many parents I know say the best thing that has worked for them is talking with fellow parents. Chat with coworkers with older children. Invite the parents of your student's high school friends over for dinner. Get to know other parents moving their kids into the dorms. And be as social as you hope your child will be during that first year :)


You mention siblings: This must be a hard transition time for them, too. (Suddenly, instead of having a cool big bro or sis do pick-up from soccer practice, they are again stuck with their parents.) Any tips for younger siblings?

Many siblings find the transition hard, but just as many find it an opportunity to come out of their rooms!   Also, often there is a car in the driveway that the student has not been allowed to bring to campus.  When a second child becomes the oldest at home, things change in good ways and bad.   You can expect there to be a shifting in the dynamics of how the family functions.  Usually quite interesting!

A lot of schools now offer FERPA waivers, which allow students to sign away their rights to keep their grades and other info private from their parents. How should families approach these forms?

This is a sticky issue for some families and a non-issue for others.  If your child wishes to keep grades private, that is now his or her right.  I suggest you talk about this with your child before you get to campus.    Parents need to respect their child's wishes on this, but they do not need to like the situation.   I think it is hard not to know, but in the vast majority of instances, children are more proud of their grades than they are ashamed of them and prefer them to be hidden.  See this FERPA waiver as an early sign of many more parent vis a vis child, adolescent vis a vis young adult,  lines to be drawn as time goes on.

This isn't so much a question, as much as a request. I worked as a Resident Assistant and then a Building Supervisor in college. I know moving in and letting go of your child is hard - but these staff members are here to help. However, there are limitations to what we can do. Please be kind and understanding when speaking to these individuals, as they are usually students as well. We do what we can, with what little we are given!

YES! No matter what you do on move-in day: Thank the RAs, housing staffers and volunteers who are slaving in the hot sun. Maybe also buy them a round of Gatorade!

I've spent the summer swinging from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other: at times literally counting the days/hours/minutes until I drop my son off at school, to silently acknowledging how much of my days are spent parenting him....any tips on how to get through the next week with some grace and how to begin my empty nest phase?

The emotions felt--both good and bad--in the weeks and months before a student starts college are always cranked up.   If you feel pride, it's tremendous pride; if you feel love, it's tremendous love; but if you get into arguments (a way of letting go of each other by the way), the anger is tremendous as well.  I have heard from many parents about the screaming in the car that can occur on the drive to the campus.


You mention empty nest.  Many parents are leaving campus for a home without children living there.  This adjustment is the hardest of all in my experience.  The adjustment will take not months, but years.  It's not all bad--new freedom and ability to plan without worrying about carpools and the like.  But also, returning to the couple that you once were or to a single life.  This takes time and is marked by some pretty deep emotion and re-examination.  Know that all this is normal.     One more very important thing.  Children know that they are leaving you without children.  You MUST tell this last child that he or she is not responsibole for your well-being.   Last or only kids can feel guility about leaving you said and alone.  You need to tell them that you can and will take care of yourselves and encourage them to get all they caan from their college experiences.

Rodney Johnson, GWU's director of parent services, is trying to popularize a new phrase: Instead of being an "empty nest" you are now a "duet." See this as an opportunity to finally focus a little more on yourself!

With Facebook, Gchat, Skype, etc. parents seem more accessible to their college kids than ever before and vice versa. Is this beneficial? What pitfalls should parents watch for?

All these things are temptations to communicate more than is helpful.   You need to use these things sparingly.  Despite parents wishes to know everything that is going on, you need to allow the students to bhe on their own as much as possible.  Send an email or a text of a genral nature every few days perhaps.  Avoid things like, "What did you eat for lunch?"  or "How was biology today?"    Better use things like,  "How was the week?" or "What did you do last weekend?"

A lot of students I know find these modes of communication less intrusive as a phone call, so it's an easy way to check-in and make sure your student is alive -- without dragging him away from a video game tournament.

Not a question, but a comment on my experience and to give parents who may have the same experience some hope. My son is socially shy and it takes him a long time to be comfortable with new people. His first semester was extremely difficult. He called me near tears the first day saying he didn't think he could do it. When classes started, he spent his time alone in a study room, studying. He was open with me about being depressed and sad, but he refused to go to counseling or to talk with his resident advisor. He came home many weekends. Slowly, he began to open up to the others around him. His roommate became a great friend and he met other friends until he had a small comfortable group. He began socializing with them. First semester ended and in January, he happily went off to 2nd semester. He made great grades (all that study time) his first semester, almost as good (due to improved social life) second semester, and he's looking forward to going back. Whew. The good part for me was the weight I lost his first semester from worrying about him, and the best part was seeing him overcome his obstacles and begin enjoying school.

Wonderful!   Well done, Mom and Dad!!

Ah man, I'm getting a little choked up here. That's wonderful :)

PLEASE say this to your son/daughter the day you drop them off (even if you are not sure you believe it) "We love you and we are so proud of you. You are a man/woman we trust and respect. We know that if you have problems with your roommates or your classes you'll be able to handle them on your own with the help of your professors or student services. We are here to listen, and give our opinion, but we believe now is the time for you to handle difficulties on your own." You would not believe the number of mommies who call me to tell me my classes are too hard, or to complain about their kid's grade.

Well said from a professor who has clearly been at this for a while.  I hope he or she does not mind people using his words without proper citation!   Perfectly crafted.

Once a week max! Lady, step back. Let go. Let the young adult forge their own way!

Confession: I'm in my mid-20s and I still talk to my parents several times a week. Is that bad?

If my child is paying for his/her education, they have a right to keep grades private. If they are not, I have the right to see them. Which is why for *me*, my parents saw my grades in undergraduate school, but not in grad school. I will do the same with my kids. If they sign somethign saying I can't see grades, great, but then I wouldn't pay their tuition.

Your response brings the stickiness of this issue into clear focus.  Many parents feel as you do.  It looks like there may be a confrontation about this.   I hope you can resolve it in the best interests of all.  It's a tough one.

Would you consider asking your kids to share their grades with you, instead of checking them yourself? Sometimes simply giving your child the option of being in control (and being trusted) can make this a non-issue. If they don't want to share their grades, then there could be a reason for concern and you could demand to have access.

My two are long-out - one from W&M in 2004 and the other from JMU in 2007. From what I saw happen while on campus with other students I WOULD STRONGLY ADVISE "CELL PHONE" PARENTS TO QUIT CONSTANTLY CALLING YOUR CHILDREN! I knew of some students whose parents (usually mom, but not always) were calling a couple of times a day or more. It's time for the chidren to start growing up. I'd take it further - if a student is calling the parents more than a couple of times a week - that's too much, and he/she should be told to cut it back. LEAVE THEM ALONE, PARENTS!

Something I kept hearing at an orientation earlier this summer: Wait for THEM to call YOU.

And remember, students are normally not allowed to answer their phones (or text messages, emails, FB messages, etc) during class. If you call them during the school day, you take their attention away from their studies.

I agree with Jenna.  I good plan is to allow the students to call you when they wish.   Of course, if you don't hear anything for a week or more, a gentle nudge can be helpful and reassuring.

While grades are one thing, parents might want their child to sign a medical waiver allowing them to be notified of health emergencies. Under current privacy laws, my understanding is that even if your child is in the emergency room with menningitis, if s/he is over 18, no one will give you any information. While I realize that this can be fraught, if, for example, parents want to find out whether their daughter has been prescribed birth control, in emergencies, I would want to be able to discuss with doctors what was going on.

While the effort to respect the privacy of 18 year olds is laudable in many ways, there are some real complications that ensue.  One is mentioned here with regard to medical visits.  It's been my experience that some students do not take sufficient care of their health and things that might have been avoided through some plain old parental suggestions are allowed to become worse because parents are unaware of a child's illness.  I like the idea of asking the child to waive  medical privacy ruling, but, again, it's the child's right to decide on this.  This can be a frustrating thing for parents who worry (i.e., most of us).

And when it comes to federal laws governing information universities can share with parents, there is a clause allowing officials to do/say something if a student's life is in danger. But different schools interpret that differently. (Using this clause, some schools have begun to notify parents every single time an under-21 student has a run-in with alcohol.)

I'm the youngest of three (out of college for decades now). Never even considered 'leaving my parents with no kids. Of course, my sister had just moved home after graduation. Interesting perspective, but do kids *really* care?

Not all last kids care, but sufficient numbers of them are aware that they are the last to leave  and that their parents' well-being rests heavily on them.    In my talks with parents, I have heard both sides.  Sometimes, the parents are very upset about the empty nest, sometimes the overly sensitive child.  Sometimes,  and I have seen this, the parents tell the child directly that he or she must call home every day and come home on weekends.  Not a good idea for anyone.

Parents: please take this from an about-to-be grad who has been there - please be familiar with the college's mental health/counseling resources. Many mental illnesses usually have their emergence during the college years. And even if your student is 'only' homesick or stressed, these are professionals YOUR tuition is paying to have. Make use of that. And teach your student to be supportive of her peers!

Yes, yes, this is a very important conversation to have. Quite often students will think that their problems aren't serious enough to warrant reaching out for help when other students might be dealing with "more serious" problems. But health professionals usually want everyone to reach out for help.

Tracy Cross, executive director of the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William & Mary, once told me that all high-achieving college students should be in counseling at some point to talk out the stresses in their lives.

Earlier in the chat, someone mentioned that parents should tell their students to look out for their peers. I couldn't agree more -- and wanted to share a "freshman survival tip" that I wrote for the Post's magazine earlier this year. Having reported on way too many student deaths as a reporter, I hope every student out there can take this advice to heart:

Be the person who says something.

You and your classmates are going to run into challenges over the years. And just as you would hope that a good Samaritan would help you if they sensed trouble, decide now that you will always be the one to speak up if you see someone in trouble. Never assume that someone else will take action — because when everyone makes that assumption, nothing happens.

If someone on your floor routinely gets black-out drunk, say something. If someone posts a depressed Facebook status, say something. If two people are too drunk to go home together, say something. If a student is harmed by someone else, say something. If a relationship seems abusive, say something.

Don’t try to handle these problems alone. Call 911, your RA, an administrator or your parents. In most situations, your identity can be concealed — and even if it’s not, it’s the right thing to do.

Should parents still give their college kids help on their homework? Especially if that student is studying something the parent does for a living?

My answer to this is basically ,"No."   Even if Dad or Mom is up on the latest research and theory in an area, he or she will not always be around to help the child through situations.   I suggest you see the content of the homework as secondary--math, chemistry, english, whatever.  The thing that the student needs to learn is more general:  "When I come upon a body of knowledge that is hard to understand or a problem I cannot solve, what do I do?"  While the answer in your specific field of expertise is surely, "Ask my parent," the same answer would not appoly to the vast number of similar situations that your child will encounter at college or in life.  Suggest the child seek peer tutoring or formal turoring.  They are available on all campuses.

I agree with Mr. Duke about a "gentle nudge" if the student doesn't call very often, but it depends on the student. One of mine needed a "gentle sledgehammer" to get him to call more than once a month.

hahahaha! I love it.

Me, too!

This was a really fabulous chat. Marshall, thank you so much for your thoughtful and down-to-earth answers. I hope this chat will help some new college parents through the transition!

For regular followers of Campus Overload Live:  Sadly, the chat producers and I have decided to stop doing a chat every single Thursday afternoon.

BUT I will still do occasional chats centered around higher ed news and my articles. The first one will be on Friday, Aug. 19, and we will discuss decorating your dorm room. (Plus, you can always ask me questions on Campus Overload's Facebook page!)

I hope that everyone has a wonderful weekend. Good luck moving to campus!!

I have enjoyed chatting with people about what to expect when you take your child to college for the first time.  Lots of things to think about and worry about, but don't lose sight of the fact that as parents, you have done something remarkable.  You have started with a little infant unable to care for itself and have nurtured that child through good and bad, sickness and health, achievement and failure, ups and downs to the point where he or she is ready to begin life without your constant phsyical presence.  What an achievement--one to be proud of.  You have given them roots and now you must help them to develop their wings. This is  a process that will take years, not an event that happens on the day you take them to college.  Between the time they are freshmen and the time they are seniors, you will see a miraculous personal and intellectual transition.  Watch it happen, enjoy it--just try not to interfere with it too much!

In This Chat
Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson writes about college students and campus trends for the Post. She also runs the blog "Campus Overload," which chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of Hill interns.
Marshall Duke
Marshall Duke, Emory University's Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology, has studied a variety of family issues formore than three decades. Recent research by Duke has examined how family storytelling strengthens familial bonds.

For more than 25 years, Duke has delivered a tremendously popular talk for parents during Emory's freshman orientation on "Parenting a College Student: What To Expect." He's shared his tried-and-true advice with thousands of parents.

Duke joined Emory's psychology faculty in 1970. One of Emory's most decorated faculty members, Duke was named a Candler professor in 1991. He has been a licensed clinical psychologist in Georgia since 1972. Duke has authored seven books and more than 70 articles. His numerous television appearances include slots on the OprahWinfrey Show, The Today Show and Good Morning America.
Recent Chats
  • Next: