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College Parents Learn to Survive the 1st Year

By Steve Gladis Special Thanks to the Washington Post

It's been a torturous year waiting for test scores, grinding out trips to every college campus within a 500-mile radius of home and reminding your child to submit applications to a half-dozen schools. Then finally the acceptance letters come and as parents, you think your troubles are over. Think again.

You are about to embark on an odyssey over which you have little control but in which you have enormous responsibility for financial, legal and, most of all, emotional support. However, you're not alone. Every fall, thousands of parents say tearful goodbyes to their sons and daughters leaving for college.

But here's a stunning statistic: During that first, most critical year, nearly 25 percent of students at four-year institutions drop out. That is a significant financial and emotional cost to themselves and you -- their parents. So, to assist you along the way, here are 10 tips to help you survive your child's first year at college:

  1. Offer roots and wings: Let's start with the toughest one first. Providing a touchstone, a link back to stability during a year of continuous adjustment, is critical. As parents, you can offer firm roots to first-year students being blown around by the strong winds of change. At the same time, as students begin to stabilize, you have to let them go -- to give them wings. First-year students need to make their own decisions.

    Thus, the first year is a balancing act for parents -- both a time for stabilizing -- yet, at the same time, for adjusting to their children's independence. Offering roots and wings is a difficult task best done in stages by starting as early as possible -- perhaps over the summer before classes begin.

  2. Communicate, communicate, communicate: With phone cards, cell phones, e-mail and instant messenger, there's no excuse for not staying in touch with your college-bound student. Don't be surprised to get a lot of contact in the very beginning and for it to taper off as the semester rolls on.

    Typically, kids hold on to you through communication -- roots. And as they let go -- get their wings -- they feel more confident and take you for granted. This is not a bad thing but a reality. No matter where they are on their roller-coaster ride, communicate with them. Tell them what you're doing and ask them what they're doing. It's not a sin to ask them if they're going to class, eating well and getting sleep.

    In fact, if you suspect a problem, send a letter or an e-mail about the issue before you discuss it. This will enable you to express your concerns without the heavy emotion that often comes in a face-to-face meeting or in a phone call.

    I learned this from my wife, who is a master at well-worded and thought-through e-mails that pose important questions and offer honest, loving advice. Kids listen despite what you might think. So tell them what you think, but only after you've done a lot of listening first.

  3. Fasten your seat belt: You're in for a roller-coaster ride, too. The smiley faces of the first few days as kids meet their cool roommates and their interesting teachers will turn into frowny faces by mid-semester, if not sooner. Students' idealized views of college -- parties, fun and sun -- will turn rudely into the reality of tests, compromises and adjustments.

    So don't get crazy when you get a call or an e-mail that reflects the elation of the first few weeks or the frustration of the mid-semester despair. It is normal. Let me repeat this: It is normal.

  4. Hang tough: While you're on the receiving end of "This place really sucks," it's not always easy to hang in there. You may feel helpless or at a loss for words. The important thing to do is listen. Eventually, if your child's concerns require action, you, as a parent, will make that decision.

    When my youngest daughter hit this trough in her first semester, she announced that she wanted to leave the very university that six months ago she had done cartwheels to get into. We listened, talked and listened more. We had a family meeting and listened more. Then I announced that we'd have another conversation after the first year and that leaving during the first semester was not an option.

    Some tears, a few raised voices. We hung tough. Now a senior, my daughter announced how glad she was to have stayed at such a wonderful university. Hang tough. Did I mention that such vicissitudes are normal?

  5. Ask for help: When in doubt, check your feelings with other parents. Find parents who have already survived the first year of college. Talk to other kids, such as recent college graduates. They tend to have the best hands-on advice, and you'll be surprised both by their wisdom and their delight to offer it.

    Finally, if you ever sense that your child has a serious problem, don't hesitate to contact the school's counseling office. As a rule, school counselors are excellent, confidential and very experienced in problems that might arise. Enlist their help. They'll not only counsel you but they'll also make every attempt to get your child in for a listening session. Remember, school counselors treat both what you say and what your child says in strict confidence. Translation: They won't tell any party what the other said unless given permission.

  6. Embrace the quiet: After students leave in August for school, their empty rooms, now-missing voices and even the lack of phone calls may at first be an emotional downer. After all the activities dissipate -- the sports, the dates, the friends and the background noise of our kids -- we naturally respond to the environmental change. But I will guarantee that at some point well into the semester, you'll wake up after a refreshing uninterrupted night of glorious sleep to hear not a sound except birds chirping.
  7. Keep eyes half shut: There's a story about an aging minister who gave advice to a young couple about having a long, loving marriage: Keep your eyes wide open before marriage and half shut after marriage. I advise the same with adult children.

    At some point, first-year students come home for a weekend break or for the longer, more challenging holiday break. The first visit home will be interesting. Kids and parents aren't quite sure how to react to each other.

    As best you can, treat them like guests, not like big children. For example, forget curfews. They haven't had curfews for months and won't have them when they go back to school. Respect gets you a lot further than rules, advice and criticism. It's not easy, but effective.

  8. Visit students carefully: Visiting first-year students at school can be tricky. Why? Simple: You're a parent, with all the natural baggage parenting brings, and now you are invading their turf. So you need to be careful and deliberate.

    I suggest the following formula for a successful campus visit: 1. Always announce your visit. Again, ask permission. This pre-visit request will save everyone mounds of embarrassment and disappointment. 2. Stay only for a short time. I suggest anything more than a few hours is overstaying your welcome, especially if it's on a weekend -- you'll likely get in the way of a party or road trip. 3. Feed them. Take students out to dinner or lunch. They'll enjoy the relief from institutional cooking, and it gives you all something to do as you exchange information and catch up. 4. Leave money. I suggest leaving $20. 5. Leave town. If you've come a long distance, find an excuse to visit a nearby tourist attraction. That's it.

  9. Trust them to do the right thing: Research by sociologists suggests that children are value-programmed by the time they're 10 years old. Certainly, by the time they've hit college, you've inculcated your values in them. I've proven this in numerous seminars I've conducted with students and parents.

    All the advice and counseling you've given your kids runs on a continuous loop in their heads. They may not live their lives exactly the way you wish they would, but your lifetime of instruction will not be ignored.

    When I talk to students, I tell them about the red-face test. Whenever they're faced with difficult personal decisions, they should consider this: If my parents were to see what I'm about to do on the television or on the front page of the local newspaper, would I be embarrassed? If the answer is yes, I tell them to run from the situation.

    Students know what's right and will usually do the right thing. Besides, when they're miles away from home, what choice do you have but to trust them?

  10. Remember a simple prayer: The first line of the "Serenity Prayer," made famous by its use at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, offers consoling advice: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. . . . " Such wise counsel can well serve any parent of a college-bound student: Serenity, courage and wisdom.
  11. Great luck!