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University Counseling Center

The First Year

Your son or daughter is beginning an exciting journey. The transition to college often marks a new chapter in the student’s life and in your relationship. This developmental period involves many changes for students and their families. You may find yourself sharing much of the excitement, frustration, disappointment and sense of accomplishment that can be a part of students’ first year in college. While each student will experience his or her own personal set of challenges and parents will have different responses to their daughter or son’s college experience, we have listed some common challenges along with some suggestions you may find useful.

Common Challenges for Students:

  • Developing increased autonomy and self-reliance.
  • Establishing their identity in a new environment.
  • Leaving the familiarity of well-known people, places, pets, and routines.
  • Being away from home during important events (e.g., birthdays, holidays, illness).
  • Feeling left-out of the family “loop” or family decision-making.
  • Negotiating new “communal living” challenges in residence halls (e.g., privacy).
  • Renegotiating contexts as they go back-and-forth from home to college (e.g., shifting focus from home & family back to schoolwork & college peers).
  • Building a new social network with roommates, peers, romantic interests, and adults.
  • Becoming part of a culturally different and/or diverse university community.
  • Falling “in love” (and perhaps out of love) for the first time.
  • Clarifying a sense of overall purpose and competence in the multifaceted and academically rigorous university setting.
  • Effectively juggling multiple demands with less-structured time.
  • Coping with new personal “ceilings,” disappointments, or a loss of self-confidence if they do not make the same excellent grades they achieved in high school.
  • Managing “identity shifts,” “Freshman Blues” and emotional ups-and downs: independence/dependence, confidence/insecurity, excitement/distress, sentimentality/detachment, desire for privacy/need to confide, maturity/immaturity, etc. Some vacillation is natural and expected as students grow out of their former way of relating to the world and try on their developing “adult” selves for size.

Common Challenges for Parents, Extended Family and Other Supports:

  • Experiencing mixed feelings of excitement, happiness, relief, sadness, loss, and fear.
  • Shifting from parent-child to parent-young adult relationship.
  • Adjusting to being on the outside, feeling less needed on a day-to-day basis, and less privy to some aspects of your student’s life.
  • Trusting that you have adequately prepared your student to function as a successful young adult (but getting there is a process and they may still be on their way…).
  • Being supportive of the decisions students make for themselves and avoiding sending messages that set up a conflict of loyalties within the student (e.g., not wanting to disappoint parents if they pursue their personal goals).
  • Allowing your student room to make mistakes and maintaining patience and flexibility.
  • Staying connected even though you likely will not see the student daily and may not talk to him or her as often as you are used to.

Some Suggestions for Supporting Your Student During the First Year:

  • While going to college certainly changes the parent-child dynamic, the relationship itself continues. Despite newfound independence, college students still benefit from their parents providing a secure emotional base, especially during difficult times.
  • Maintain regular contact with your student via phone calls, e-mail, care packages, letters, and pictures of special events. Keep in mind that even if there is lack of reciprocity at times, that does not mean that your communications aren’t important.
  • Consider that students will usually be less likely to confide in parents about difficulties if a parent reacts with overt “worrying.” Being mindful of your response provides a chance to facilitate maturation in the relationship with your daughter or son.
  • Remember that you do not need to meet all of your son or daughter’s needs: allowing them to be resourceful and creative problem-solvers will foster well-equipped adults.
  • Encourage your student to get connected with the campus community – student groups, campus activities, faculty, and staff may all serve as resources.
  • Support your student’s right to make independent decisions by following their lead: Serving as “advisor” when advice is requested. Pay attention to their reactions to unsolicited advice.
  • Encourage them to trust themselves: Perhaps not to always make the perfect decision, but at least to recover and learn from mistakes. Honor and acknowledge their resiliency after they pull through challenging times.
  • Keep in mind that everyone does not develop and mature at the same rate or in the same way. Some students need additional time or support to adjust to university life, while others have little difficulty adapting.
  • Remind yourself to notice and appreciate their new skills and development over time.
  • Taking care of yourself and enjoying the liberties this “shift to college” can bring sets a positive tone for the transition. Consider your own interests that may have been neglected due to parenting demands. Pursue or renew leisure interests, creative endeavors, career changes or other things you have put on hold over the years. Be a great role model!