College Transition Guide for Parents Part Two

Letting Go: College Transition 101 for Parents [Part Two]

Facing New Challenges

Words by Mrs. Debbie Pitcairn, Director of College Counseling

During the first year of college students are separating from their parents and working to differentiate themselves as independent young adults.

It is important to appreciate the challenges of their position and how much courage it takes to meet them.

Common Challenges Students Face During the First Year of College

  • Students leave behind their families, friends, and everything they know to start in a new unfamiliar place where no one knows them or their reputation.
  • They share a small living space with a stranger – sometimes sharing a bedroom and bathroom for the first time – and have to negotiate and communicate openly about everything.
  • They are insecure in their ability to be successful in this new environment: they have more work and less structure, direction, and feedback than they have ever had before.
  • They have more free time and more choices but less guidance in everything: friends, extra-curricular activities, social situations, classes, partners.

How to Prepare Your Child for These Challenges

Have meaningful, important conversations as you go.
There is much we wish to impart to our growing, soon-to-be-independent children. Don’t wait until the last moment to have a big, long, heavy talk. Spread them out; pick your moments at appropriate times. You have probably been having these conversations – about values, relationships, alcohol and drugs, good decision-making, safety, etc. – for a long time. Make plans to do some specific things with your son or daughter over the summer (a lunch, a college/dorm shopping trip, a trip to the college campus, or during a car ride, etc.) and initiate a conversation around one or more of these topics. Make sure to leave lots of time for listening, not just lecturing. Ask your child what he/she thinks or hopes or fears. Give them a chance to ask questions and tell you what they are thinking.

One of the conversations you should have is about finances.

Finance Conversation Prompts and Considerations

  • What are the expectations for the college years?
  • What expenses are the student’s responsibility and what are the parents’ responsibility?
  • Be explicit and clear about what costs belong to the student (car insurance? gas? clothing? entertainment?)and which belong to the parents (books? medical costs? transportation to and from college? phone?).
  • Will the student get an allowance?
  • Will the student need to get a job?
  • Does your student have or need a credit card and how will it be handled?
  • What happens if the student runs out of money?
  • How will student loans be handled?

Give them space.

Communication is so different today than when I was in college. I talked with my parents once a week by landline, and I was the one who called them. Today, with cell phones, text, email, Skype, FaceTime, etc., there can be almost constant communication between parent and college student, even if they are far away. Remember, they need to separate. This requires space and time. Do not call too often.

Let them call you.

I recommend talking about your expectations around communication before your child goes off to college and understanding what each party needs – and compromise! However, even if your child is amenable to daily phone calls – restrain yourself. Make yourself unavailable sometimes, and let your child experience independence. They will grow more for it. Don’t solve their problems, but do remind them that you are confident they can do that on their own.


Make yourself unavailable sometimes, and let your child experience independence. They will grow more for it. Don’t solve their problems, but do remind them that you are confident they can do that on their own.


Some children call when they are excited and happy. Some call when they are down and stressed. You will get to know your child’s patterns. One thing is sure, though: whatever they are feeling is sure to change quickly! Try not to get sucked into your child’s panic or temporary blue mood or euphoria or crazy idea! Take a breath and stay positive and even-keeled. Your job is to listen and validate; be a sounding board and support. You might suggest resources, people, or places to go to get help if needed. If you are truly worried about your child’s mental or physical health, call a Dean of Residential Life or the Advising Office and let them know your concerns.
Spend some time familiarizing yourself with campus resources for health care, both physical and mental, safety systems, emergency communication systems, Offices of Advising, Registrar, Bursar, etc.
This way you can advise your child when he/she calls you when sick or unwell or needs to deal with an academic or financial issue, and you can redirect them to the resource they need. Make sure to complete any paperwork or online registration you need to do to be included in campus communications.

Letting Go is a conversational meeting our Director of College Counseling Mrs. Debbie Pitcairn has with parents of seniors. In this three-part blog series, she covers many of the topics included in that meeting. Information for this series came from several resources. For a full list of recommended reading, see this list.

Part One: Preparing for Adulthood
Part Two: Facing New Challenges
Part Three: Managing Academic Expectations and Handling an Empty Nest

Learn more about our College Counseling program here.