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The Parent Coach: Coaching Successful Adjustment To College Life

Contributed by: Dr. Steven Richfield

Parents write: What advice do you have for the freshman college student who tells us she can’t wait to leave home? We know there will be some adjustment process but we’re unsure if she will take her time and make good decisions once she doesn’t have us breathing down her back.

Few steps in childhood compare with the enormity of leaving home to attend college. Finding friends within an unfamiliar social terrain, managing academic challenges, aptly steering oneself from early morning to late evening, and many other demands await first year students. Successful adaptation relies upon being prepared with tools to balance these competing needs. Paralyzing loneliness and homesickness, mistakes in judgment, falling grades, and roommate incompatibility, among others, test emotional fortitude and determine success and failure as a freshman. Parents know that all students have their share of stumbles, but here are some coaching tips to minimize the fallout:

Independence can backfire if it arrives without necessary self-discipline. Some freshmen are unprepared for the tremendous freedom of this stage since it departs so significantly from what they experienced at home. While most parents have already begun to “loosen the reins” of authority before the student leaves, the system of accountability drastically changes with the start of college. Gone are the nightly check-ins and opportunity for questions and input. Accountability can now be solely measured by grades at the end of the semester, a situation that opens the door for twisted priorities and the ultimately, the abuse of freedom. Such risks are especially great for students of reactive parents since college affords them the opportunity to follow their own desires without any parental heat applied.

If your new college student pursues a policy of disengagement it’s time for a heart-to-heart discussion. If reactivity has driven a wedge in the relationship, acknowledge that you have made it difficult for them to confide in you. Suggest that the stakes are higher now and that its vital that they keep you informed about the truth, even if the truth about their college experience is hard to reveal and even harder for20you to hear. Explain that the “hear and reveal” difficulty must be overcome because it helps keep them on track, brainstorm solutions to everyday problems, and allow for constructive damage control.

Adjustment takes time and many freshmen are in a hurry to get that behind them. The pressures of fitting in and establishing social connections compel some freshmen to party too hard, sleep too little, and do what friends do no matter the costs. Inclusion within a distinct and influential social group leads to habits and routines that can be detrimental to successful adjustment. Encourage your student to work towards a broader social base in order to increase options for companionship. This will make them less likely to simply follow the crowd they have come to depend upon for friendship.

Feeling some degree of homesickness is often a natural byproduct of a healthy attachment to parents. Unfortunately, many young college students find these feelings unacceptable and perceive them as a symptom of failure. Rather than admit to them and talk them through with those with whom they trust, the feelings become buried under sadness, alcohol, or some other unhealthy crutch. The crush of separation from home can also give rise to social isolation, missed classes, and academic decline. Parents should look out for the possibility of this development and help their child see it as a normal and temporary state before they build a bridge toward a feeling of belonging.

Dr. Steven Richfield is an author and child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA He has developed a child-friendly, self-control/social skills building program called Parent Coaching Cards now in use in thousands of homes and schools throughout the world. His book, “The Parent Coach: A New Approach To Parenting In Today’s Society,” is available through Sopris West (sopriswest.com or 1-800-547-6747) He can be contacted at director@parentcoachcards.com or 610-238-4450. To learn more, visit www.parentcoachcards.com

Posted on December 30, 2008