Helping, not hovering: how to be a college parent
Colleges to hold parents’ information meetings for the first time
Niamh Curran, UCC student, and her mother, Rosarii, from Killurin,Co Wexford. Photograph:Mary Browne
With uniforms, homework notebooks and Leaving Certificate worries joyfully consigned to the past, starting college is both daunting and exciting. And that’s just for the parents.
Whether your college student is moving away or staying in the home, it is a significant turning point in family relationships.
“It is nearly as much a transition for the parents as for the students,” says Brian Gormley, manager of Campus Life at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT). “We see it with parents – they are struggling between wanting students to be independent and wanting to protect them.”
It can be difficult to judge where support stops and interference starts – it’s a fine line between being a committed, interested parent and one of those much-derided “helicopter” parents. But, certainly, if you find yourself on the phone to your son or daughter’s tutor asking for an extension to an assignment deadline – you’re way over that line.
We may not see the extremes of “helicopter parenting on campus” that have been documented in the US – a 21-year-old student at the University of Cincinnati won a civil stalking order against her parents last December after they installed monitoring software on her phone and computer and also kept turning up unannounced – but there is a definite trend of parents here remaining more involved in their offspring’s lives when they go on to college.
In recognition of this trend, the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) is, for the first time, holding an information evening for parents of first-year students tomorrow evening. And Trinity College Dublin is planning something similar later in the year.
With the emphasis at third-level being on independence and self-management, involving parents is something DIT would have steered clear of previously, says Gormley. “But we have come around to the point of view that it is important parents are aware of the services available for their students.”
About 10 per cent of the parents of the 2,500 first-year students are expected to attend tomorrow’s information session in DIT Bolton Street, which will cover issues such as finance, academic requirements, support services and settling in at college.
More parental contact
Gormley says he and colleagues in colleges across the State notice they are getting more contact from parents – partly because more students with disabilities are going into college and “those parents, in particular, would have a history of fighting for the rights of their children and that continues into third-level”.
However, the phenomenon of “extended adolescence” has been attracting the attention of social scientists in recent years.
“There is a theory that students are less independent than they were 20 years ago and parents probably are supporting that in a way,” says Gormley.
But over-controlling parents don’t do third-level students any favours, according to a study published in the US earlier this year. Holly Schiffrin of the University of Mary Washington in Virginia found that “helicopter parenting” had a negative impact on college students because it undermined their need to feel autonomous and competent.
Students reporting a higher level of interference from parents (well, mothers to be precise, as the students were asked only about their mothers) were more likely to be depressed and less satisfied with their lives.
“You expect parents with younger kids to be very involved but the problem is that these children are old enough to look after themselves and their parents are not backing off,” Schiffrin, an associate professor of psychology, told Reuters. “To find parents so closely involved with their college lives, contacting their tutors and running their schedules, is something new and on the increase. It does not allow independence and the chance to learn from mistakes.”
So, as a college parent, how do you back off but continue to offer age-appropriate support at what is undoubtedly a challenging time?
“It is a real letting go for the parent,” says Bernadette Ryan, a therapist with Relationships Ireland. As one mother of a college student said: “I used to know where my daughter was all the time and now I haven’t a clue.”
Registration for college is complicated but they have to do that for themselves, Ryan advises. Encourage their growing sense of autonomy but recognise they are still vulnerable, particularly if they are living away from home. “They want all this freedom but don’t quite know what to do with it,” she suggests.
If they are staying at home, negotiate ground rules around safety and respect now that school no longer imposes the same structure on their lives.
“Listening is so important – it is the most important part of communication,” Ryan stresses. “We seldom really hear our kids – we already have our mind made up, we already know what’s good for them.”
She acknowledges it is difficult letting them make their own mistakes but parents should take the “my experience has shown me this” approach to giving advice – “whereas we tend to be more dogmatic and say ‘if you do that, this will happen’.”