We may be coming into the dog days of summer, but for incoming college freshmen and their parents all over the country, this is a time of major transition. Sons and daughters are preparing to set out into the world of higher education and independence as mothers and fathers steel themselves to do that most dreaded act (even if it should be so easy): letting go. All of us have, at some point, gone through the transformation of the parent/child relationship that occurs as children become adults. For some, the change feels natural, easy, at times even imperceptible; for others, it can be a tumultuous and confusing road. In any case, one of the many jobs of a success coach is to help students understand and navigate these transitional relationships.
Knowing how to help a student in this way depends, of course, on the kind of relationship a student has had with his or her parents prior to arriving on campus. Some students are 100% ready for the independence of college life; others have never spent a night away from home. On the extreme ends of the spectrum, some students are used to having their parents do practically everything for them while others have basically raised themselves. While many students move through the this transition relatively easily, those with more complicated or co-dependent parent/child relationships can face significant roadblocks.
One phenomenon that has garnered its fair share of ink in the last few years is that of the “helicopter” parent. The picture most often portrayed is one of parents whose over-involvement in their children’s lives comes despite the protests of their son or daughter. However, I find that, more often, this kind of relationship is a two-way street (albeit one that parents have been primarily responsible for creating). I’ve had students who are used to talking to their parents three or four times a day, and so that is what they continue to do in college. They are in near-constant communication (most often by text) with their parents, and they often feel incapable of making decisions of any importance without their parents’ input. This situation is not necessarily unhealthy, but it can prevent students from taking initiative on their own or thinking and acting independently.
Sometimes, though, the pressure does come primarily from the direction of the parent, and those are the cases I find particularly frustrating. I vividly remember one Fall, a few years ago, running into our track coach while crossing the quad. School had only been in session for a few days, and already he seemed run-down and stressed. I asked him what was the matter. “I recruited this amazing runner,” he began. “She’s smart and driven and, as an athlete, I could build my whole team around her.” So what was the problem, I asked? “Her mother has been distraught ever since she left home. She keeps calling, begging her daughter to come home, saying she can’t live without her.” And so? “And so she left this morning.” I didn’t know this woman or her life, obviously, but I wanted to try to get her to see that it was her child’s future, not her own, that she needed to keep in mind. This particular student was not one of mine, but I have had students facing similar pressures, and I understand how difficult it can be. Even those who stay must build up a wellspring of courage in order to combat the stress and guilt that can accompany a parent or parents who are controlling or who just cannot seem to let go. Other students arrive at our university having dealt with all sorts of manifestations of family dysfunction. I’ve had more than a few students whose family lives were simply terrible and who were thrilled to have finally escaped, only to find new challenges at college which stemmed, in part, from their lack of good role models at home. I’ve had students who have no parental support whatsoever- who’ve grown up in foster care, who were begrudgingly passed around from relative to relative, or who simply had parents who did not seem much to care about the future of their children. As a parent myself, it seems unfathomable, but it happens.
Obviously, the way in which a success coach helps to guide someone through these complex relationships and changes varies from student to student, but I find myself at some point giving a version of the same advice to all, “This is your life. From here on out, it’s all up to you. You have to make your own decisions and try to build the life you want. It may not be easy; in fact, at times it may seem nearly impossible to tell your mother you can’t come home because you have to study, or to apply for financial aid when you are the first person in your family to go to college and the weight of the world seems to be on your shoulders. Perhaps your struggle is seemingly as simple as the journey to learning how to do your own laundry. But that’s why there are resources here to help you!” I tell my students to seek out mentors, whether they be fellow students, RAs, coaches, professors, or administrators. “Find someone who seems to know something you’d like to learn and let them show you how to do it,” I say, “for though we and we alone are in charge of our own lives, we all need teachers, mentors, guides, and friends.”
And in terms of a student’s relationship with his or her parents, I remind them that this process of transition is normal. We all go through it. And for most of us, when we come out on the other end, our relationships with our parents are often deeper and more meaningful than ever before.
Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007. The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.