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If you're like most parents of college-bound freshmen, you're experiencing some wildly conflicting emotions. On the one hand, you're so proud of your child for taking this next step into adulthood; on the other hand, you're up nights worried about all the things you know she isn't ready to handle on her own yet. You want her to thrive at school, yet your feelings get bruised when she doesn't seem to miss you very much. You're secretly excited about the free time her absence leaves you, but then you get depressed every time you walk by her empty bedroom, which, for once, doesn't need cleaning.
It's difficult to know how to keep in touch, how to communicate about loaded subjects like grades, and how to support, but not coddle, your child. Here's help from the experts on what's appropriate and what's not, plus ways to cope with your empty nest on the home front.To Call, Or Not to Call?
It's essential to stay in touch with your first-year college student. Every freshman wants to feel like mom and dad love and miss her; she needs you cheering her on as she launches into an unfamiliar world. But how much contact is too much, and how much is enough? Here are some guidelines for communicating with your child:Talking on the Phone
E-Mail The Internet is a fast, cheap way of staying in touch. As with the phone, though, don't overdo it by e-mailing more than a few times a week.
Snail Mail Good old-fashioned mail is sometimes the most exciting kind for college freshman. Most students check their campus mailboxes without fail -- they love getting letters, cards, photos, and even news clippings from home. Don't be hurt if your child doesn't write you back by mail; that doesn't mean your efforts aren't being appreciated.
Care Packages Care packages are a must-have for any college student. Send a batch of homemade cookies, quarters for laundry, a flower delivery, or anything else that might be meaningful to your child. Packages are great for birthdays and holidays as well as midterms and finals. If you've recently talked to your child and she seems to be going through a hard time -- homesickness, perhaps, or heartbreak -- a care package can be the perfect pick-me-up. Some colleges have on-campus organizations that deliver fruit baskets and holiday treats.
If your child calls expressing sadness, homesickness, or struggle of any kind, your gut reaction might be to jump in the car and drive straight to her dorm. Resist! Even if your child sounds clingy or needy over the phone, remember that she is now on the brink of adulthood and needs to learn to navigate the world rather than rely on you to do it for her. This is a time for her to be building new relationships and finding resources away from home.
So, what can you as a loving parent give her? A listening ear. A long-distance shoulder to cry on. The assurance that you believe in her and believe in her ability to cope with the situation.
Of course, there may be cases when a child's emotional problems seem acute: Do you suspect severe depression, anxiety attacks, an eating disorder, or alcohol abuse? If this is the case, your best course is to call the student counseling center and find out what resources are available on campus. Ask to speak to one of the counselors for advice on dealing with your child's problem.
Homework Your days of homework patrol are over. You can't -- and shouldn't try to -- make your college freshman study in advance for his economics exam or finish all his American lit reading. The completion of assignments is now a matter between professor and student, not parent and child.
Grades When inquiring about your child's classes, it's best to "ask about content rather than grades," according to Voncile White, dean of first-year students at Wellesley College. "Then students will talk more freely and won't worry about measuring up or disappointing you."
Remember, for freshman, college is about so much more than academics. It's quite common for studies to fall by the wayside during the first year, as students explore a brand-new social world and test the limits of their freedom. Don't panic if first-semester grades aren't the best -- it's not unusual for students to fail a class early in their college careers. Once your child adjusts to college life, he will most likely buckle down in his studies and his grades will improve.
Declaring a Major Most freshmen don't know what they want to major in and frequently change their minds about it. Feel free to give your child advice if he asks for it, but there's no need to pressure him to decide: Most schools don't require students to declare majors until the end of sophomore year or the start of junior year.
After your child goes off to college, you may discover unexpected and even pleasant changes at home: less laundry to do, smaller grocery bills (with one less mouth to feed, you'll find food going bad in the fridge!), and more leisure time. But there will also be a difficult period of adjustment and loss -- not only after your child leaves but also in the months beforehand. Don't underestimate the impact your child's departure will have on you, your marriage, and your other children.
Pre-college Turbulence Because the summer before college marks the first stage in your child's separation from the family, it can be a bumpy time. Emotions are often intense, with behavior running the gamut from angry demands for independence to increased clinginess. Tread gently, knowing that both you and your college-bound child are going through separation anxiety.
Try to spend some time together as a family, affirming the things that you share, and creating new memories for your child to take with him to school. If your other children are feeling anxious about their older sibling's departure, talk to them about what will and won't change in your home and how you will all keep in touch.
Self-care If, once your child has left home, you feel the loss acutely, experiencing sadness and even depression, your best course of action is to focus on your own well-being. Be gentle with yourself and treat yourself as a child in need of comfort. What can you do to nurture yourself? Bubble baths, nature walks, and listening to music can soothe a fragile heart. Remember, it is not the job of your departed child to make you feel better; do not turn to her with your grief. Get support from parents who know what it feels like to send a child off to school.
Bring joy into your life by doing your favorite activities, ones that don't require the participation of your child. What is it that you love? Going to the movies, gardening, playing a round of golf? Then do it! In time, you may want to take up new activities, volunteering at a local soup kitchen, becoming more active in your church, traveling far and wide. But in the beginning it's best to stick with what you know. Trying to fill the void with too many new hobbies and commitments only temporarily pushes the sadness away and may prove more overwhelming than anything else. Whatever you do, don't make any drastic changes in your life such as moving or getting a new job. It's hard enough to deal with the empty nest!
Your Marriage After a child leaves for college, most couples have more time to spend with each other, especially if there are no other kids at home. You and your spouse will most likely have to rediscover the things you share, things unrelated to your child. You may also find that you have different ways of dealing with the empty nest syndrome. It's not uncommon for a child's absence to challenge -- or even unravel -- a marriage. But if you respect each other's emotional differences and approach this time as an opportunity to get to know each other again and rejuvenate your love, your marriage can weather the transition and emerge all the stronger.
Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Understanding the College Years by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger "A sensitive, informative, and well-written guide to help parents know what their children are getting into when they leave for college. Full of practical advice and psychological insight, it's a better antidote than Valium for the anxieties parents feel as they prepare to let their children go." --Ben Leiber, Dean of Students, Amherst College
Indiana State University has a terrific Web site with resources for parents and families. Though some of the information is specific to Indiana State, the links on Letting Go, Students with the Blues, Getting Ready Mentally, and Tips for Parenting a Freshman address concerns common to all parents of college-bound kids.
Lilan Patri is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher living in New York.