The first year of college is a massive life transition for both young adults and their parents, which can be thrilling and anxiety-provoking in equal measure. Our Founder and Clinical Director Matt Lundquist recently appeared on WNYC’s All of It with Alison Stewart to address how parents can support their young adult children during freshman year and deal with their own sense of loss.
Joined by NYU’s Dean of Students Rafael Rodriguez in the segment “Approaching Move-in Day as a Parent,” Matt explains to All of It guest host David Furst, as well as a series of callers, that the first year of college is a moment of maturation when “we throw a lot at young people.” In particular, freshman year is a time when some young adults are exposed to different things than they have been previously. This includes often a new physical environment, living on their own, drugs and alcohol, sex and sexuality, sexual identity, and, of course, increased academic pressures.
Even though the first year of college can be a particularly vulnerable and stressful moment for young adults, Matt encourages parents to “have some confidence in the work you’ve done as a parent.” “One of the things I often talk to parents about is,” Matt says, “by the time your child is headed to college, typically around 18 years old, most of the work parenting them is work you’ve already done.”
This doesn’t mean the work of parenting is over, but it’s also important to have some appreciation and confidence in a young adult’s “ability to face those hard things, take them on, and thrive…” Most young adults, Matt explains, “have an internal capacity to rise to the challenges that they’re confronting.” In particular, the parental urge to “rescue them…or try to reduce obstacles” is often a missed opportunity for young adults to grow and see what they’re capable of.
While not mentioned on air, it’s also crucial that parents have realistic expectations of what their college student is up to. Not all students will drink or use drugs, but that is a big part of college. Conceding this will make it more likely a young adult will speak to a parent if they have a problem. For instance, rather than saying, “I know you won’t drink,” the message can be: “If you drink, think about how to keep yourself safe.”
Although most college students may simply need some encouragement, the first year of college can be a high-risk moment in terms of mental health. Matt urges parents to lean on the big roles schools and universities can play in building a support system for young adults. If a young adult seems to be struggling, it’s not uncommon for a college or university’s team to ask RA’s or professors for signs of concern and reality test for parents if more help is needed.
Freshman year can also be hard on parents as they grieve letting their children go upon sending them to college. This can often express itself through pressure parents put on young adults to communicate frequently and sometimes overreactions when a college student doesn’t immediately text or call back. While there’s no right answer to how frequently a college student and their parent should check in, Matt notes that a parent and their college student should decide on this schedule between them. He continues: “The critical question to ask is: Are you calling, texting, reaching out because that’s what your young adult needs to feel loved and connected? Or is that something that you’re doing that’s more about trying to help you feel less lonely and manage your anxiety?” If it’s the latter, it’s critical to remember that a fundamental rule of parenting is that parents take care of kids, not the other way around.
Ultimately, from the earliest years of infancy through college and beyond, child development (and raising children) is a process of becoming independent. Children have their own challenges—developing the skills and confidence to navigate the world—but parents have a series of transitional challenges as well. When a young adult goes to college, both parent and child need to give each other permission to allow this transition to happen. If a young adult is worried about their parent being lonely, that can become a burden that disrupts their move to independence and their comfort moving forward in their first year of school. Instead, parents need to work to build their lives so young adults can be fully free to let go.