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 Off to College? Enter Here: The Changing Parent/Child Relationship

Margo E. Bane Woodacre and Steffany Bane, the mother-daughter authors of Doors Open from Both Sides, provide alternating viewpoints and tips for parents and their college-bound student as they enter a new phase of their parent/child relationship.  

Life is full of transitions. Some are painful, some bring happiness, but all involve a change from "life as it was." Passing through these transitions can be likened to opening new doors in life. Sometimes, though, fear of the unknown can accompany us as we open the new door. For families, a significant life transition can occur at the stage when their young-adult child leaves home for college. The new experiences and pressures in this phase of family life can challenge the relationship between parents and child.  

We, as mother and daughter, learned much from our own struggles to preserve what had been a happy, communicative and somewhat serene relationship. We found that other families at the same stage were going through similar experiences and decided to learn more. This led to our research and then the book, Doors Open from Both Sides, which is aimed at helping families navigate this eventful time of life. In our own case, we realized that what was an unaccustomed struggle to understand each other in our changing roles, eventually led to a stronger, more communicative relationship for us as adults. Doors opened to a renewed happiness in our lives.  

The following suggestions are drawn from our book, with the hope that they will help new college students and their families keep their doors open to one another as they experience the various challenges of the off-to-college transition.  

Busy Life through the Senior Year

The Revolving Door
Entering and going through the senior year in high school is like navigating a revolving door: Attention needs to be focused on making a good exit. For parent and child, the senior year is full of activities that focus on the student's future. Paper work for college applications and decisions about school selection will add to the pressures of the school year. Along with these responsibilities for families come the excitement and fears of "What's next?" It is during this time that challenging emotions begin to surface for family members and parent/child relationships can be tested.  

Mom's Tips for Parents:

  • Through the whole process, be patient and help keep the family lines of communication open. New anxieties about the future can cause unfamiliar emotions to erupt and tempers to flair. Understand that your child is subconsciously trying to learn to "let go" as, indeed, you are. As parents, openly, but tactfully, communicate any concerns to your child and encourage him/her to do the same with you. You can still set some boundaries, but demonstrate growing trust in your young adult and give him/her independent space and responsibility. When (and if) he/she shares, listen to her/him, practice patience in responding and keep the lines of communication open.
  • As his/her high-school experience comes to an end, understand the importance of friends to your child. As the college departure approaches, seniors will probably want to spend more time with good friends. There is comfort for them in bonding and sharing their anticipation of the next step with one another. Devise ways to give them space and time to be together.
  • Plan meaningful family time together. Too quickly, your college-bound child will be out the door. Make time for and enjoy special moments together. If circumstances permit, plan a family summer vacation, a long weekend or a special outing before the college move. Make sure the event is one in which both the parents and the young adult will be interested.
  • Anticipate the emotions of the eventual send-off. For all involved, the departure can be an emotional one that sometimes can create serious feelings of anxiety, loss and fears of the unknown.
  • Before the send-off, develop agreement on mutual expectations about grades and financial matters. Having a shared understanding of these matters before the child leaves for school can help avoid misunderstandings and challenges during the student's first semester.

Steff's Tips for Students:

  • Know that your parents will probably get on your nerves. Through this exciting, yet challenging, transition, try to be patient with your parents. Trust me, those who have been through it understand the sometimes overwhelming feelings that the senior year provokes. The last thing you want is your parent breathing down your neck about deadlines and "friendly reminders" (or sometimes not-so-friendly). Believe it or not, they are as excited as you are. Sometimes, they will express themselves in an "annoying" way, but know that they mean well, and do not take offense. Rather, recognize that through their experience of life, they can actually have great suggestions that will be helpful.
  • You will feel a need to spend much of your time with your friends. You are about to leave them as you head off to college. Enjoy their company while you can. If you explain this priority to your parents, they might better understand, as long as it doesn't interfere with other responsibilities.
  • Keep in mind that along with you, your parents might be feeling uneasy about the forthcoming separation. Find ways to spend quality time with your family, when possible. Whether it is shopping with Mom for school, attending events with Dad, celebrating special occasions, or going on a summer vacation--enjoy being together. Believe me, you will miss your family once you leave home.
  • If you are feeling unusually emotional or troubled about leaving home, communicate these feelings. Leaving the comforts of home, friends and familiar surroundings is not easy. Whether it is in a private conversation with your parent, relative or best friend, it helps to express your feelings. Almost always, you will be understood and validated.

Freshman Year--Communication with Sensitivity

The Screen Door
A screen door allows for an open view, while at the same time affording a degree of privacy. Similarly, communication between parents and their child away at school should have openness in expressing viewpoints but, at the same time, demonstrate mutual respect for privacy. For both parent and child, the changes in the environment will necessitate extra effort to maintain positive and supportive relationships.  

Mom's Tips for Parents:

  • Don't bug your student during the first semester. Allow time for your student to comfortably adjust to college life. Plan on staying in touch, but arrange a time that is convenient for both of you to converse. Remember that 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday or Sunday morning tends not to work well for new college students!
  • Use the power of email. This form of communication is an excellent way to communicate for both parent and child. It is amazing what your student can and will share with you through this medium. There is no parental negative tone of voice or body language to which the student can react. We, as parents, can receive the messages, react and have time to reflect before responding.
  • Be aware of "signals" of unusual behavior from your child. Look for hints of chronic homesickness or persistent avoidance of communication from your child. If unusual behavior is sensed, arrange to get help through the proper college channels.
  • During your first visit to campus, understand, as a parent, that you are now on your student's turf. This is a time for enjoying his/her sense of role reversal. Allow for a healthy show of independence.

Steff's Tips for Students:

  • Stay in touch with your parents. It is difficult to realize how important it is to our parents that we keep in touch. They may worry too much, that's true, but trust that this is based on love and affection. They have little control over what you do while you're at school, so it won't hurt to take a moment to call and tell them how you are doing. Participate in setting a convenient, agreed-upon time once a week to talk.
  • Understand the possible repercussions of unnecessarily "unloading" problems on your parents. Once you unload your problem on your parents, whether it involves school affairs, relationships, homesickness, or just being unhappy, they will worry about it even more than you do. Whether we like it or not, our parents take on our problems, and it's sometimes difficult for them to let go.

First Visit Home  

The Door Jam
The first visit home can bring warm feelings, excitement and, unfortunately, confrontations. "Home sweet home" can take on new and different definitions for parents and child when the latter settles in for this particular, unpracticed first visit.  

Mom's Tips for Parents:

  • Be prepared for the first visit home to bring challenges. Remember that when your student returns home for the first visit, he/she will have changed. You might expect the same child who left in the fall, but understand that your student will be returning home with a good dose of independent living under his/her belt. This could be a time to consider a sensible renegotiation of home rules to fit the needs of all.
  • Your child will probably sleep late for the first few days. With finals usually just before vacation, your student could be exhausted. Give him/her space and time to catch up on rest. Also understand that most home beds are more comfortable than college beds!
  • Make sure that you spend some meaningful time with your child. Don't be surprised if your child wants to spend most waking hours with former high-school friends. When possible, arrange time for the family to be together. Whether it involves an activity or sport or just having a meal together, this will give all family members an opportunity to share views, discuss any differences and preserve an appreciation for family values.

Steff's Tips for Students:

  • Your first visit home might not be quite what you expected. Anticipate some challenges to the way you behave. You've been away at school for a couple of months. Perhaps you have developed a schedule of sleeping late on weekends and strolling in at sunrise. You can't wait to go home and enjoy the cooking and other comforts of home. Understand that even though your sense of schedule might have changed, your parents might not agree with you that a 5:00 a.m. curfew is reasonable. Sit down and figure out a reasonable time that you can come in that isn't a problem for you and your friends, but definitely one that gets you in before the rooster's yodel.
  • Be prepared for some initial awkwardness in home-life when you return. Respect home rules. Your house has been more quiet while you were away, your room, neat. Understand that this is still Mom and Dad's domain; let them know you respect this reality.

With the right efforts by both parent and child, relationships through the college years can mature into a more open and constructive phase. Patience and open and thoughtful communication can be the keys to developing and maintaining a healthy relationship that will preserve itself as the family walks through the future doorways of life.  

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Written by Margo E. Bane Woodacre and Steffany Bane