For Parents from the Counseling Center

When your student goes to college, what can you do?

Sending a son or daughter to college can be complicated for parents. Just like all of the transitions that have come before, parents want to do what is best for their children. Not surprisingly, parents often become concerned about the personal functioning of their college student. The faculty and staff of the Counseling Center are available to consult with parents who have questions or concerns about their son or daughter.

Because of the range of student concerns that are encountered by the faculty and staff at the Counseling Center, we are very familiar with a wide variety of possible services that can be of assistance to students and their families. In addition, our department is committed to serving anyone who is attempting to succeed at IUP or anyone (parents, faculty, friend, etc.) who might be assisting someone in his or her studies here.

Issues Commonly Raised by Parents

  • Is what I am seeing a normal thing for a college student?
  • How might I best support the student?
  • How can I convince the student to seek professional help?
  • If there is a basis for treating my child's condition as an “emergency,” what steps should be taken?

The psychologist's assistance will be based on the description you provide and on our extensive experience working with college students' emotional development. Our thoughts will not be based on information we have about your specific student. For more information about this, check the part of our website that discusses the privacy of students.

So, we welcome inquiries from anyone who has questions about what a student might need. Even if we are not the final resource for a student, it's a very good chance that the Counseling Center is a great place to start!

The following sections are designed to offer some ideas about the common concerns shared by parents. Please contact us with other concerns or comments.

The Transition to College

This section is designed to help parents understand some of the important transitions that can be a part of the college experience. Parents and families can feel new influences from the experiences that their students are having. This information will help you understand and anticipate some of these changes, help you have a useful perspective on the changes, and be better positioned to support the success of the student.

Changes You Might Expect

By the time a student goes to college, most parents have already been a part of the profound changes that can occur in the teenage years. Most parents report that the experience of sending a son or daughter to college is associated with eagerness, worries, confusion, and hope. By the time the student actually takes that first step, some evidence of changes is already visible. The student becomes more independent, gains skills and confidence in new areas, and has experiences with a larger diversity of peer relationships. Ideally, the college years are a time when a student continues to mature and gain the knowledge necessary to lead a successful life. However, it can be very difficult to know what that might mean for you as a parent. Here are some examples of what you might go through:

“Help!”/“Don't Tell Me What to Do!”

One difficult part of adolescence in these times is confusion about when to be independent and when to rely on others. Unfortunately, students might not even know that they are going through this confusion. It can be frustrating for a parent to go through this part of the growth process with their students, not knowing how to be helpful and receiving messages which are unclear or incomplete. In their confusion, the student might add to the uncertainty by changing rapidly—rejecting your help on Tuesday and actively seeking it on Wednesday. We've often heard about parents in great distress because their student predicted a poor outcome on an exam, but forgot to provide an update when the results were better than expected. Not surprisingly, the parent will have a very difficult time knowing when to help, when to step back, and/or how much to worry. Even worse, a parent might feel that it is time to help, but it can be very difficult to know what is the most helpful thing to do. Most of the time, the best thing for a parent to do is provide a steady, supportive emotional “home base” while recognizing that there will be ups and downs in students' needs and expectations.

Try to follow the message that you received from your student as much as possible, and encourage him or her to work through a problem. While staying in contact with their experience of the difficulty, you can provide a lot of assistance as a person who believes in your student and is willing to be responsive to your student. You can go far as their “life coach” by helping them balance their thoughts and emotions to make their best decisions. Your actions will reinforce your words by letting them know that you respect their right to make a decision and that you will serve as an advisor when asked. We generally assume that students will make the best decisions possible in such an emotional context.

Another way to bolster the skills of your student is to look for opportunities to notice and appreciate the positive ways that they express their emerging adulthood. It means more than you might guess to students for their family to recognize the progress they're making and to be reminded that the success of the students is the success of the family. You might need to clarify with your students what they mean when they give you confusing messages, but this clarification is greatly assisted by a context of loving support.

“This Is My Decision.”

It is completely natural for parents to feel a high level of investment in their student's decisions. Problems can arise, however, when parents are invested in decisions in a different way from the student, with different priorities than the student, or in different directions than the student. If it seems that the student is not assuming responsibility in a particular area, it can be very anxiety provoking or objectionable for the parent to leave the responsibility to the student. The paradox in this situation is that students often refrain from taking responsibility until parents step back. For a lot of reasons, this dilemma is played out in families very often, and good intentions coming from loving sentiments might not lead in the desired direction.

It is very uncomfortable, and even feels unnatural, for parents to allow their student to feel the discomfort of emerging adult responsibilities. In addition, there is really no guarantee that students will assume responsibility or that they will make the same decision you would. It is really easy to see how parents can lose sleep in thinking about decisions the student makes with which they disagree, that might not seem like the best decisions, or that feel like the student is not taking responsibility at all.

In our experience, it is impossible to walk away and pretend to be disinterested, and that is not really honest in most cases. At the same time, it seldom seems productive for the student to take on all the frustration of the parent. It is our suggestion that you provide clear messages about your concern that are supportive of the student. Let the student know that your messages are targeted at the concerns that the student has rather than specific to you as the parent. Let the student know that you are concerned, and let the student know that he or she must sort this out. It's even okay to tell the student that you don't know what to do, but you are ready and willing to learn with him or her. Be attentive to opportunities for coaching, letting the student know that you are ready for coaching when the timing is right. Encourage the student to help you know the nature of the support that he or she needs, and trust that request. By moving too quickly, you might make it more difficult for the student to seek you when the time is right for him or her.

“College Is Different from What I Thought It Would Be.”

For most students, arriving on campus for the first time brings many surprises. Even for people who have been in Indiana before, there's a lot to discover about what college and life are about. Often people discover that a certain academic major has surprises in it or leads to other possibilities that were not anticipated. Part of the newness of the college experience might be the growing awareness that certain job roles which were being considered by the student are different from what was thought. Sometimes the surprises can even be within the student. Students might find out that their interests or priorities have changed.

A big part of this change can be how to adapt to the new environment. At the most basic level, it might mean learning how to study, how much, and how often to study. Academic expectations are more rigorous than in high school. Students accustomed to receiving "A's" and "B's" have to work much harder to earn the top grades in college. They also have to figure out when they should be studying and how to motivate themselves to do so. Ultimately, they learn when to ask for help and when to resolve issues on their own. Coming face-to-face with new challenges is an important and usually beneficial part of the college experience. What often makes a difference between the challenges being beneficial or otherwise is the use of appropriate support. So, finding the best support in dealing with these challenges is very important. Often, students can get support from peers who approach their college experience in a positive way. Trained peer helpers (residence life staff and other trained peer helpers on campus) can also be valuable. The university has many other resources to address student needs. These resources include support for learning, health, career, and other personal concerns.

Like anyone experimenting with early independence, a student might assume that being independent means going through things without assistance. Parents can do a lot for their student by listening to him or her and asking questions. These questions can be a way to help a student explore and evaluate resources that promote and reflect maturity— the student can learn that getting appropriate help and getting advice do not detract from autonomy or growth as an adult. At the same time, parents and other family members can serve key roles in providing the support needed. On many occasions, we have told parents that it might be a good idea to let their student know that the party has spoken with us and found our assistance to be useful.

Students often tell us how important it was that their parents believed in them and provided active support as the students made the effort to solve problems on their own. It is easy for parents to underestimate this fact and important to recall that parents continue to provide support for their student as a move beyond college years. The support provided also contributes to the loving framework that can become a cherished foundation for the adult relationship that may be celebrated for years.

“I'm Back!”

The first visit home from college can bring new perspectives. These new perspectives can be interesting ones for all members of the family. The student might return home and think that the “new person” who has emerged will be well-recognized and appreciated by the people who knew him or her before. At the same time, parents and/or siblings might expect the student to be very much the same as before and that the rules and standards for the household will be experienced just as they were before the departure of the student.

Parents can expect that their views will differ from those held by students during those first visits home. Knowing this in advance, the student and the family can seek a compromise that considers both the needs of the original family and the growing independence of the student. It can be helpful in this situation for both the student and the family to keep the goal of overall family harmony and health as a priority so that everyone can begin the discussions in a spirit of respect and flexibility. There are a few differences between family members that are worth discarding the overall well-being of the family.

If your son or daughter is commuting to school from home, you can do a lot for his or her growth to help the student evolve into new roles in the family system. Changes in independence and responsibility can be discussed and implemented in ways that provide new experiences for the student while building trust and positive feelings for everyone in the home.

About Us

These are just a few of the possible experiences students and their families will face in their college years. Of course it is impossible for us to anticipate all situations, and if anything, our faculty and staff have come to appreciate the broad range of human experiences. This is why we're available to you as professionals with extensive training experience.

The faculty and staff at the Counseling Center welcome opportunities to talk with you about your concerns. As you can see on our website, we offer a variety of services. Our list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) will be updated as we hear from people about their concerns.

Our website also provides several different ways for you to reach us. We hope that you feel comfortable contacting us if there is any way that you think we might be of service. Even if you are not sure where to turn, we are certainly a great place to start!

Suggested Readings

A Nation of Wimps, by Hara Estroff Marano

You're on Your Own (but I'm here if you need me), by Marjorie Savage (Fireside Book)