St. Mary's College of Maryland

What Can I Do to Help My Child from a Distance?

Your parenting job is not over, it is just changing. You are entering the Launching Phase of parenting. As students enter into adulthood, it's important for parents to begin acting as coaches and advisers, helping their sons and daughters make good decisions without "telling them what to do" or "rescuing" them. Here are some ways you can express your caring and enhance your child's growth into adulthood as well as his or her experience at St. Mary's.

  1. Listen to their concerns.
    Even though your almost-adult is experimenting with independent choices, s/he still needs to know that you're there and available to talk over normal events and difficult issues. If s/he needs help or support, the subject is more likely to come up if you aren't inquiring pointedly about what time s/he came in last night. Listen to the melody, not just the content. Don't trivialize any of his or her emotions or concerns. Much of what s/he is saying is "I'm changing and I'm scared" even when the content is "I know what I'm doing."

  2. Stay in touch (but not too much)!
    Remember the names of roommate(s) and friends s/he mentions often. Encourage your child to send you pictures of his or her room and friends. Be interested but not intrusive. Send photos of any remodeling or family pets, and send care packages periodically, especially around mid-terms and final exams.

  3. Negotiate frequency of communication.
    Parents need to stay connected to their children and college students need to respect the fact that parents want to check in with them periodically to see how they are doing. Talk about how often you'll speak on the phone, visit each other, or send e-mails or texts. Many students have cell phones and chat with their families frequently while others set a predetermined day and time to call. If an uncharacteristically long amount of time passes with no word, it's not a bad thing to check in and make sure everything is going smoothly.

  4. Be willing to cut the cord.
    Encourage an appropriate level of independence and self-responsibility. Let them use their own judgment to decide what is best for them and trust them to make good decisions. Teach them life skills such as how to do laundry, live on a budget, set up a checking account, and manage their time.

  5. Help your child problem-solve.
    If she calls home with a problem, keep calm. "Sometimes we get upset on our kid's behalf, and it is not helpful," says the author of Empty Nest, Full Heart. Instead, practice reacting to such "melt-down calls". For example, you could say, "I'm sorry you are having a rough time. How are you going to handle it?" Then coach, don't rescue. Coach them in talking things through with their roommate or making their own phone calls to the professor. Encourage your student to use the College's services instead of relying solely on you for help.

  6. State your concerns.
    It is okay to ask them if they have thought about study habits, sexual conduct, alcohol, and drugs. As parents, you can and should send clear messages to your college–age children about your values, that they can choose not to drink or drug, and if they choose to use alcohol they should do it moderately, legally and appropriately. Don't glorify your own "youthful drinking or drugging days" if you had them.

  7. Don't overburden your child with your emotional issues.
    What you want is to be useful to them, and you will need to find somewhere else or someone else to help you with how you feel. They want to know you care, but they don't want to know too much. Keep them informed, but grant them a little distance from any family problems that arise.

  8. Encourage smart financial practices.
    Most students come to college with a fairly detailed plan about how tuition, room, board, fees, and books will be paid for, and what the family's expectations are about spending money. Work together to set up a budget plan for the year. Warn your student not to apply for every credit card offered. Smart money management is a lifelong skill that will benefit your student.

  9. Be realistic about academic achievement and grades.
    St. Mary's attracts bright students from all over the world, and not every first-year student who excelled academically in high school will be a straight-A student here. Developing or refining the capacity to work independently and consistently and to demonstrate mastery can be more important than grades, as long as the student meets the basic academic requirements set out by the College. Instead of focusing on grades, ask your student to discuss class projects and papers with you. Again, these are choices that each individual student makes, though certainly it is appropriate to coach your child in setting his or her own long-term goals.

  10. Keep Cool.
    Students tend to share their good times with their friends and rely on family for their difficult times. While a "melt-down call" may be frustrating, it is a sign of trust. They can allow themselves to be vulnerable with you. Try not to be overly reactive to their venting, or jump to intervene. To determine whether an issue is a serious problem needing additional intervention, consult the SMCM Counseling Services Web page section on For Faculty, Friends, and Family: Signs and Symptoms of Distress in Students.

  11. If your child does experience difficulties at SMCM, encourage him/her to take advantage of the wealth of resources available for students.
    The small and personal environment of the College offers many sources of help. For academic issues, students will find that talking with the professor, teaching assistant, tutor, or academic adviser is a helpful first step, but the Academic Services office and the Career Development Center are also available for help. For stress, relationship problems, or more serious concerns, Counseling Services is available free to full-time students. The Office of the Dean of Students can assist with a variety of concerns. Resident Assistants and Area Coordinators are available to help ease adjustment and direct your son or daughter to the right resources on campus.

"As your student prepares for a bigger world, it doesn't mean that you will be left behind. Freedom, independence, self-sufficiency...these are all things that we wish for students. Yet, they will always need you. Allowing your relationship to evolve as your student dives into the college world requires compromise, flexibility and trust. With these tools at your side, the college experience can be a wonderful, eye-opening experience for you both."

- from A New Chapter: How parents fit into their students' lives at college, Paper Clip Communications