The college years can present unique challenges for students and their families.
On this page:
“Your job is to be there. To be left.” Anna Freud
Understanding the Transition to College
For your child, college will likely be a period of intellectual stimulation and growth, career exploration and academic development, increased autonomy, self-exploration and discovery, and social involvement. During this period, your student may forge new identities or seek to clarify their values and beliefs. This may require an examination of self, friends, and family. It may also be a time for exploration and experimentation, and a period in which your child may question or challenge the values you hold dear. The changes your child may experience can occur quickly, as they begin to develop new peer relationships, gain competence in new areas, and learn to manage independence. It is important to recognize that every young person will experience his or her own unique challenges and adjustments, just as every parent will have different expectations for and reactions to their student's college experience.
Often overlooked is the fact that the college experience is a significant transition for the families of college students, too. As parents, you may experience feelings of happiness, excitement, and pride when your child leaves for college. At the same time, you may feel a sense of sadness and pain and have many understandable fears and concerns about your child's future and well-being. You may worry about your child's safety and ability to care effectively for themselves. You may fear "losing" your children as they begin to function more independently and form deep attachments with peers. You may be concerned about how your student will deal with alcohol, drugs, and sexual relationships. You may also wonder how your student's performance in college will reflect on you as the parent. It may be comforting to know that most parents and students report increased closeness as well as increased independence as college approaches.
How you can support your child:
Maintaining a supportive relationship when your child leaves home is a new and important development, particularly during their first year of college. If you and your student were not particularly close prior to their leaving home, it is still important for you to convey your support. You may be surprised to find that some space and distance from your student can help improve your relationship with them.
- Be available, but not all of the time, for every small disappointment or problem. Our children have grown up in a time when they can access us (and us them) at any moment for any reason - and they do! Now is the time to allow them to experience rejection, figure out a plan B or how to find a new social group on their own. Let your student know that you respect and support their right to make independent decisions and that you will serve as an advisor when asked. Finally, recognize that it is normal for your student to seek your help one day and reject it the next. Such behavior can be confusing and exhausting for parents, so make sure to take care of yourself by talking about your feelings with your own support system.
- Schedule a regular time to talk. It is important to maintain regular contact with your student, but also to allow space for your student to approach you and set the agenda for some of your conversations.
- Agree on a budget. Be realistic and specific with your student about financial issues, including what you will and will not pay for, as well as your expectations for how they will spend money.
- Focus on academic strategies, not only the grades. It is important to be realistic about your student's academic performance, recognizing that not every straight-A student in high school will be a straight-A student in college. Help your student set reasonable academic goals; encourage them to establish regular study routines & good habits and encourage them to seek academic assistance when needed.
- Refrain from burdening your children with problems from home they have no control over and can do nothing about. The fact that your student has left home does not necessarily prevent family problems from arising or continuing. Sharing these problems with your student may cause them to worry excessively and even feel guilty that they are away from home and unable to help. But reassure them that if there is a serious illness or other emergency at home you will let them know.
- Find out contact information for people involved in the various aspects of your student's college experience. If you have questions, or if a particular problem arises, call the appropriate person, but make sure to involve your student in a collaborative effort to address the problem.
How you can support yourself:
- Recognize that it is normal to have mixed feelings when your children leave home. Feelings of grief, pain and loss often accompany separation from loved ones. It is also normal to feel a sense of relief when your children leave for college, and to look forward to some time alone, or with a significant other, or with your younger children.
- Develop and maintain your own social support system.
- Maintain your own sense of well-being. This may involve eating and sleeping well, exercising, and setting new and creative goals for yourself. Perhaps this is a good time to do things you put off while your children were growing up. Taking on a project or hobby can be an excellent way to channel your energy and feelings.
Services provided by the Gettysburg College Counseling Services
The Counseling Service provides free, confidential services for Gettysburg students, including assessments; walk-in emergency sessions; individual and group counseling; limited medication management and psycho-educational outreach programming.
Students seek counseling for a variety of reasons, including relationship concerns, difficulties with roommates, loneliness, isolation, emotional difficulties including depression and anxiety, eating issues, and identity issues. Normally these problems are relatively temporary and students recover fairly quickly; however, if the intensity or persistence of any of the problems makes it hard for your student to function effectively, or if your student is experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, it is advisable to encourage your student to come to the Counseling and Wellness Services building right away. It usually works best to allow your student to take the initiative in accessing our services-if you are the one who calls and makes an appointment, your student may be less likely to follow through.
Gettysburg College Counseling Services as a resource for parents
The staff of Counseling and Wellness Services is here to serve you too. We may not know your child, but we have significant expertise in this age group. We encourage parents to reach out for resources and consultations. We also know it is difficult being at a distance and knowing that a loved one is in distress. We will also take phone calls from parents who have reason to be concerned that their student is undergoing significant emotional difficulties. The staff would like to be supportive and will listen to a parent's concerns. A parent may offer information that could be invaluable to a student's treatment. You can reach us at 717-337-6960 or email@example.com and a staff member will get back to you within 24 hours. For urgent concerns please contact Campus Safety at 717-337-6911.
The Counseling and Wellness Services staff must adhere to professional ethical standards and to state laws regarding confidentiality. These standards and laws restrict us from sharing information with anyone, including parents, about a student unless we have the student's written permission to do so. Consequently, if a child were to tell a parent that he or she is seeing a clinician and the parent would like to be able to talk to the clinician, the student must sign a release of information that will enable staff to discuss the situation with the parent.
Other Helpful Resources
- The Naked Roommate, For Parents Only: A Parent’s Guide to the New College Experience, by Harlan Cohen (2012).
- Don't Tell Me What To Do: Just Send Money, by Helen Johnson and Christine Schelhas-Miller (2000).
- Emptying the Nest: Launching Your Young Adult Toward Success and Self-Reliance, Brad Sachs, PhD (2010).
- Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Understanding the College Years, by Karen Levin Coburn & Madge Lawrence Treeger (2016).