So Your Young Adult is Off to College

We provide advice on helping your child embark on their college adventure and on how to find support and information for yourself.
Student and parent celebrating graduation

So your son or daughter is off to college? For moms and dads of college students, the first year may come with the excitement of turning that bedroom into a nice workout space or comfortable new study. Yet you may be worried about not knowing exactly what your son or daughter is up to at all hours of the day or night. Rest assured, your young adult is embracing his or her new freedoms with unbridled enthusiasm.

While this stage of your young adult's life is one of the most exciting, it's also the most challenging. Your job this year is to support him or her, not only in the transition from high school to college, but also in the process of moving out of the adolescent stage of development and into young adulthood.

Researchers in higher education have identified some distinct patterns of experiences that your young adult will encounter in this developmental stage. During the college years, students develop their intellectual capabilities and their sense of integrity. They move away from their parents' expectations as they establish their own identities. Emotionally, they learn how to create meaningful relationships and how to better understand their own feelings. Most importantly, at this stage, they figure out their own life's purpose and become independent adults.

How will all of this be accomplished, you ask? Well, it begins with the first year.

At the moment, you may be seeing the all-too-familiar adolescent bravado in your son or daughter. You are watching the beginnings of the "honeymoon stage" of the transition between adolescence and young adulthood. Underneath it all, your child actually may be worried about making friends and concerned about missing you, siblings, friends, and maybe even a family pet. Your child may be wondering if he or she has what it takes to make it academically in college. And he or she may not let you see what's really going on inside.

The most important advice you can give your young adult as he or she embarks on the college adventure is to ask for help, but not necessarily from you. While this might sound like strange advice, most colleges have programs and services on campus with experts who can effectively help students navigate the pitfalls and challenges of the first year. You will feel challenged to figure out when it is appropriate to step in and when to just let go. At this stage, it's time for you to learn how to let your child advocate for himself or herself.

During the first year, there will be countless times when your son or daughter will have to ask a faculty member, a tutor, an RA, a coach, or a friend for help. Encourage your child that this is OK. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; rather, it is an indication your child is mature enough to recognize his or her own strengths and challenges and is taking responsibility for the situation.

And, rather than focusing on your own fears and concerns about the college transition, showing your enthusiasm for this new experience will inspire your young adult to be open to change, even when he or she feels overwhelmed. Taking calculated risks is part of the college (and life) experience. Your role is to be there (albeit from a distance) to encourage your son or daughter to embrace this major life transition, and all of the exciting new opportunities and challenges ahead.

And as a parent, remember, you should ask for help too. Take advantage of support from friends and family members who have already sent their young adults off to college. And seek out information that will support you in your major life transition: evolving from being a parent of an adolescent into being a parent of an adult.