Parenting College Students: How to Support Your Student
You blinked, and now your child is off to college. They’re living under a different roof, having new experiences, and undergoing many changes.
It may be tempting to continue parenting college students as if they still live under your roof. Nevertheless, the way you parent them will have to change in order for you and your child to maintain a healthy, supportive relationship.
After all, college is a time of trial and error, self-discovery, and learning to be independent.
When it comes to parenting college students, no one-way-fits-all. The truth is, every child needs different types of support from their parents while in college.
Some students may need more help than others, whether financial, emotional, mental, informational, or other kinds of support.
In this article, we’ll discuss some general do’s and don'ts for parenting college students.
Advice for Parents of College Students
College students may be adults, but they still need their parents. Parenting a college student is different from parenting a child or teenager. Use the following advice to help parent your college student.
- Have Open Communication
College students are learning to navigate a new phase in their life, and they may need your support or guidance (even if they don’t think so). Give your college student the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings without judgment. Most of the time, they need someone to listen to them vent rather than respond.
Have open conversations with your child about grades, taking study breaks, setting boundaries, forming healthy habits, etc. It would help if you offered guidance and support, but always let them make the final decision.
- Set Realistic Expectations
It’s worth discussing expectations about grades with your college student, so everyone’s on the same page. Set the expectations together and be realistic about them. It’s important to understand their strengths and weaknesses academically. Even if your student is smart or performed well in high school, the transition to college-level workload and courses can be rough for some.
Additionally, if they are underperforming, ask them why and try to find a root cause instead of immediately jumping to conclusions or accusations. For example, try to understand if it’s due to a lack of effort or another reason like stress and anxiety.
Then, have discussions around what they can do to change or improve their performance (i.e., tutoring, studying more, attending their professor’s office hours, etc.). Make sure you give them an opportunity to do better.
- Remind Them to Make Good Choices
There will be a lot of opportunities for poor choices in college. Your student will face decisions like studying versus hanging out with friends, and you’ll have to let them choose for themselves. You can talk to them about decision-making and remind them to make good choices, and it always helps to lead by example.
- Offer Guidance Around Money and Budgeting
There are a lot of non-school-related expenses in college (i.e., eating out, shopping for clothes, etc.). Help them organize their money by talking to them about budgeting. You may find it helpful to establish a budget together and define who is responsible for certain expenses.
- Encourage Them to Try New Things in College
There are a lot of different clubs, organizations, and events on campus. Encourage them to take the chance while they have it and expand their experiences. Trying new things can be intimidating, so offering support and encouragement can mean a lot.
- Let Them be in Charge of Themselves
College students have responsibilities they didn’t have in high school, as simple as they may seem (i.e., waking up, feeding themselves, determining when they study, etc.). All these decisions will be coupled with peer pressure and the decisions of others around them.
Instead of telling them what to do, let them be adults and make their own decisions. Imposing your opinion when it’s not necessary could result in conflict.
Some wise words: choose your battles wisely. Try to focus on what’s important, and save important conversations for when they really matter, rather than smaller issues. This way, your student will also feel much more open about coming to you, rather than feeling like they might be criticized or penalized for every decision or mistake.
- Get the Full Story and Try Not to Judge
Things happen, and poor decisions are made. Instead of immediately scolding them, get the whole story and understand how it happened. Then, help them walk through the process of what they will do if that choice presents itself again.
Everyone will make poor choices in life. The important part is if they can learn from that choice or whether they need outside help (tutoring, therapy, etc.). Use your best judgment to intervene responsibly when it comes to harmful decisions.
- Listen, Empathize & Let Them Know You’re There for Them
If a poor choice is made or they don’t meet your expectations for grades, let them tell you about it (within reason, of course – we don’t expect you to ignore red flags or behavioral issues). Then, remind them you’re just a phone call away and ready to listen or offer advice (if they ask for it).
There are many ways to offer your support, whether through a simple encouraging text message or a care package sent to their dorm. Also, familiarize yourself with the school’s resources, if possible, so you can let them know about help on campus that they might not have been aware of.
What Not to Do as a Parent of a College Student
Remember, college is a time for students to meet people and gain new experiences while establishing independence and autonomy.
So while there are many things you can do, there are also some things parents of college students shouldn’t do, like the following.
- Calling or Visiting Excessively
Of course, you’ll miss your child when they go off to college. It will take time to adjust to not having them around all the time, and no one expects this transition to be easy. However, that doesn’t mean you should call them excessively or visit them every weekend.
If your student is constantly on the phone or with you, it will be hard for them to meet new people and live their independent college experience to the fullest.
Instead, you should give them space, remind them you’ll always be there for them, and check in periodically. You could also send a text message to let them know you’re thinking about them!
Initially, it’ll take some time to figure out what dynamic works best for your relationship. For example, some students may want to talk once per day, while others will only call once every couple of weeks. The same goes for visits and trips home.
You should have an honest conversation with your child about your expectations for communication, where you can both express your preferences (e.g. your student may prefer you call on days when they have no class).
- Pressuring Them to Come Home all the Time
Similar to limiting calls and visits, you’ll also want to avoid pressuring them constantly to come home. Instead, it would help if you encouraged them to spend as much time on campus as possible. That way, they’ll meet new people, get used to being away from home, and live the college life.
If passing the time becomes challenging, consider other ways to connect and look forward to your next visit, like scheduled FaceTime calls or even a calendar counting down the days!
Hang tight; they’ll be home on breaks and holidays!
- Giving Too Much Advice
Think about those times when you call or talk to your parents to vent, and they immediately tell you what to do or give you unsolicited advice. It can be annoying, right?
Remember that feeling when your college student calls you to vent about their roommate, a class, or any other sticky situation they’ve encountered in college.
Pay attention to whether they’re asking for help or just describing a difficult or frustrating situation. That’ll help you to recognize whether they need advice or just an ear to listen.
Parenting college students can be tricky. There will be new boundaries, and your relationship dynamic may shift. Show empathy, have conversations free from judgment, and let them try on different hats and think for themselves. After all, the college experience is all about making mistakes, trying new things, exploring uncharted situations, and then learning from them.