Four Ways to Help Your College Student Grow Up

October 4, 2021 K.O. Herston 1 Comments

This article by Dr. Natalie Friedman in The New York Times is helpful to those parents with children in college.

Four Ways to Help Your College Student Grow Up

“I wouldn’t normally call you, but my child is not good at advocating for herself.”

Working as dean and director of family engagement at Barnard College, I often hear this kind of claim.

It’s rarely true. In almost all cases, the parents and guardians who tell me this have, unknowingly, prevented their children from handling their own affairs.

I wish they would recognize this kind of overparenting for what it is: counterproductive.

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Research has linked overparenting to a wide range of negative outcomes, including low self-efficacy, depression, decreased school engagement and poor academic adjustment. Worst of all, acting as a go-between and swooping in to solve every minor problem can signal to young people that their parents think they’re incompetent and incapable of self-advocacy.

Though 61 percent of American adults with children ages 18-29 say parents are doing too much for their young adult offspring, just 28 percent say they themselves are doing too much. It’s hard for them to see how their own “helping” behaviors are harming their children.

Those who intervene unnecessarily in the lives of their college-age children are typically aware of — and emphatically reject — being categorized as “helicopter,” “bulldozer,” “snowplow” or “lawn mower” parents. That’s probably O.K. I don’t think there’s much to be gained from assigning negative labels to moms and dads who need a bit of guidance on how to take a step back as their sons and daughters transition into adulthood.

I prefer to think of them as “fix-it” parents since their primary, shared goal is to solve problems in order to protect their children from pain or discomfort.

Their actions are motivated by love.

Remembering these altruistic intentions helps me reach common ground with the parents who call the Office of Family Engagement to complain that their daughters are unable to register for their preferred classes, are intimidated by their professors, are not happy with the water pressure in the dorm showers, are worried their roommates don’t like them or are dissatisfied with the food options on campus.

I hear from dads as frequently as I hear from moms. The fathers who contact my office have a tendency to infantilize their daughters and try to enforce their own “solutions.” When a student isn’t able to register for a class because it’s full, for example, her exasperated father might call to inform me that the administration needs to open more sections of the course so there will be an open seat for his child. And when I explain that no one is available to teach an additional section, the common response from dads is, “Well, then you need to hire more instructors.”

Moms usually take a more collaborative approach. In this same situation, a mother usually inquires about how similar issues have been handled in the past. When I respond that most students simply register for the class the next time it’s offered, she will typically implore me to do everything in my power to facilitate a one-time exception and ask what she can do to help me make a spot available for her daughter.

Some parents start right at the top.

After one anxious dad contacted the college president’s office to voice concerns that his daughter wasn’t registered for the “right classes,” I followed up with the student directly.

It turned out that she and her father weren’t on the same page at all. Not only was she satisfied with her courses; she had no idea that her dad intended to intervene on her behalf — and she was mortified that he had done so. Being embarrassed by parents who meddle in your affairs is a normal, healthy response for a college student. I worry about the ones who have been taught to be helpless. What will happen to them when their moms and dads are no longer around to solve their problems?

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Fortunately, there are many ways to support young people as they learn to speak up for themselves, solve their own problems and make important decisions.

Here are a few:

Encourage them to take small steps. If your student tells you something isn’t going well — a roommate who’s abusing alcohol or drugs, a less-than-stellar exam grade — encourage the student to take a first step: Send an email to an adviser on campus, or tap in a phone reminder to call an appropriate person and set up an appointment.

Help them write “scripts.” If your student is scared to talk to a professor or feels intimidated by a dean, help write a “script” for the occasion. Chances are you’ve had experience talking to your boss or manager, so tell your student what words to use. I tell students who have trouble talking with professors to write down a few sentences like, “Hi, Professor X, I’m Sally, and I’m in your intro to biology course. I wondered if I could speak with you about my midterm. I made a lot of mistakes, and I’d like to understand how to do better next time.” Ask your student to write down your suggestions in a notebook or type them into a phone, somewhere your student won’t forget to look right before stepping into a professor’s office.

Encourage them to follow up. Sometimes a student will work up the courage to find a professor, only to hear something disappointing: They are failing the course, or the next exam will count as their final grade, or they can’t possibly take a makeup exam after missing the first quiz. Some students will take this disappointing news and turn it inward, feeling terrible and using negative self-talk. (“I’m so bad at this subject, I should just drop out of school. I don’t belong here.”) If your student has a tendency to do this, help to reframe the disappointment as a learning opportunity: Your student should follow up with an email or another visit to the professor with specific questions like, “What can I do to be better prepared for the next exam?” or “If I can’t make up this quiz, is there another way for me to try to understand the material and raise my grade?”

Remind them to talk to more than one person. A professor, a friend or a teaching assistant might have one answer to a question, but others on campus might have advice of a different kind. Encourage your student to get to know other adults on campus who might be able to help navigate a less-than-ideal situation. Getting lots of information and input can help them make better decisions. Remind them that learning to live with disappointment is a facet of self-advocacy. Even students who are great at asking for what they need may not get the response they want. Remind them that this is O.K.: Rejection is a part of life. Too many parents have a “don’t-take-no-for-an-answer” mind-set, and their children adopt the same attitude. This approach rarely works for self-advocacy. Remember that every conversation is a give-and-take, and coming off as angry or inflexible is only going to create tension with the very people who are in a position to help. Students need to learn when to accept “no” as the final answer and when it is appropriate to push back or ask more questions.

With time, your student will become better at self-advocacy — but only if you step back and let them practice.

Source: Four Ways to Help Your College Student Grow Up (The New York Times, February 4, 2020).

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Four Ways to Help Your College Student Grow Up was last modified: September 19th, 2021 by K.O. Herston

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