Sending a child off to college is a bit like taking the stabilisers off of their bike for the first time. They will wobble but the grown up must stay in the background and only intervene when absolutely necessary.
Catherine Rountree of Midlands Family Therapy is an expert in parent-child relationships and has some useful advice for parents about how to approach this new phase in the family’s life.
Ideally, preparation starts two to three years before reaching this point, where the young person is introduced to use of the washing machine and how to prepare simple meals for themselves. Being able to manage money is also a bonus, but not every teenager is ready for that at this stage.
Whatever the starting point, Catherine begins with ‘congratulations, you have got your child this far’.
“Children go through different life changes and each brings different gains and losses,” she said.
“Going to college is a big change for everyone, there is a loss and also a recognition of your role changing,” she explains.
Ms Rountree describes the new parenting role as a balancing act that allows the right amount of headway and freedom, but not too much that their young person would get into trouble.
“Trust that your young person is moving into the adult world. Legally they are adults and they are expected to behave as adults so they need leeway to be allowed sink or swim,” she says.
“Be supportive but let them make the main decision …. although I remember looking for accommodation with my youngster. When we opened the door of the first place there were incredible smells coming at us.
“I thought if he lived here he’d have pneumonia by Christmas it was so mouldy. My son wanted to take it straight away and I negotiated and suggested we look at the next place and after that he could decide. The second place was much better and he went for that.
“Accept that your child will probably be living in sub human conditions but unless it is a genuine health hazard, leave them at it. When they come they will appreciate housework,” she said.
“Teach them simple cooking and a good attitude to food. Sure they will overdose on chips for a few years but if they have a good attitude to food, they will come back to it.
“Stock up with the bare minimum (they are unlikely to use much kitchen equipment) and when you drop them off, find the local laundrette, give them a bag of euro coins and tell them not to bring their washing home with them. The parent hotel has changed.
“Talk about money before the accommodation hunting stage. If your young person can handle money have a budget talk. I set up an excel sheet with my son and we used that for the first few weeks until he got the hang of things, and somehow he survived on €10 a week.”
If your child is not good with money don’t give them the whole lot in one go, but dole it out bit by bit every week or month. Your gut will tell you if they can manage.
“If your young person is going to college but staying at home you need to have an adult to adult conversation with them around safety, that they let you know that they are ok, or that they let you know they aren’t coming home for dinner or at all so that you can turn the house alarm on. It’s about negotiation rather than parents giving them permission, and it’s a call for them to treat you with respect because now they are in the adult sphere.”
Do your emotional farewell away from the place where they’re going to live. They are already torn between not wanting you to leave and not wanting you to embarrass them.
Starting college is challenging, dazzling, stimulating and each year is different so it’s easy to become over-tired and over-stimulated.
Give the talk about sex, mental health, food and the effects of too much partying and too little sleep.”
Check the student facilities/ counselling services available. Feeling lonely, homesick and overwhelmed are normal at the start but it could turn into something more.
“If you see significant changes around sleeping, eating and drinking then ask if they are ok, or do they need a bit of help. Don’t be tip toeing around them,” said Catherine. “Come up for tea to check on them, but don’t overstay your welcome and insist they do come home every two or three weeks. Nothing beats a parent’s eyes on their child to see if they are doing okay.
“Be around in the background when you are needed. Tell them to come home and rest, and over time you will be coming from less of the authoritative place.
Ms Rountree describes the term ‘snowflake generation’ as unfair, highlighting that everyone struggles and today’s young people never get to step off of the treadmill unlike previous generations.
“All of us are more stimulated than ever. When I went to college there was no internet and no mobile phones so when I went home it was a complete break. Nowadays we are all bombarded with data and we are expected to be responsive. The days of slouching around the house in your pyjamas are gone. Snowflake is not fair. Do we let them know when we struggle so they can see that we can get through it? That way they can see that struggle is normal.
“This is the last bit of hatching of your chick who is blossoming into a young adult. It really is a balancing act. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we get it wrong.”
Catherine Rountree. Family Therapist. BSc Psychology, MSc Systemic Psychotherapy. Fully accredited member of FTAI and of ICP. www.midlandsfamilytherapy.com