How to Survive Going Away to College: For Parents and Students

Come the final year of high school and students everywhere can be seen trying to find their footing amidst a whirlwind of college application submissions, counselor-student sessions and college preparatory classes. Such times prove to be challenging not just for students but for their parents as well who also get caught up in a world of aptitude tests and tuition fees.

Yet, another aspect of this challenging time, one that is often overlooked, is the mental and emotional stress of having to part with a loved one; an experience borne by both parents as well as their children. The mere act of going away to college is enough to bring about a major change in the lives of both parties; a change that could be defined as a departure from the way life, as both parent and child know it, used to be.

Since such a change has the potential to bring about significant ramifications in a family’s way of living, stress – both mental and emotional – is bound to make an appearance. If not dealt with carefully, such a situation could eventually prove to be a recipe for disaster, ultimately resulting in both parent and child feeling distressed.

Enter Margo E. Bane Woodacre and Steffany Bane, a mother-daughter team who talk about this very predicament faced by thousands of families across the United States in their book, ‘Doors Open From Both Sides’ . Drawing from their own experiences as well as from the experiences of other families in similar situations, the mother-daughter duo have come up with a list of tips and suggestions that offer a fresh perspective for both parents as well as their children on how to deal with such changes.

Both authors have linked the various stages of going to college, i.e. from college application to freshman year to the first visit back home, to the subsequent stages of adjustment that a family goes through along with appropriate responses to each. These are:

The Last Year of High School

A chaotic time for both students and parents, senior year at high school is usually spent dividing one’s time between choosing amongst universities and the actual college application process.  Many families become totally engrossed in activities that are expected to play an integral role in deciding a child’s future. The pressure of such a situation combined with fears related to an uncertain future make up for a very emotionally unstable time.


Tips for Parents:

  • Keep the lines of communication open. Since the going away to college marks the beginning of an entirely new way of life for both parents and their child, it is bound to affect the mental and emotional well-being of both parties. In such a scenario, it is necessary for parents to establish effective forms of communication with their child and encourage him/her to do the same without being too forceful in doing so.
  • Give them space. Understand the significance of friends during such a time. Many high school seniors seek comfort in their peers who themselves are going through similar situations. It is best for parents to work out ways in which they can spend time with both friends and family.
  • Develop mutual expectations. Holding a discussion with their child about important matters such as grades and finances will help them get through their first semester at college without much hassle.


Tips for Students:

  • Be understanding towards parents. Acknowledging the fact that this time of change is a source of stress and anxiety even for parents will help students deal with their behavior. Though at times considered ‘annoying’, children must understand that whatever the parent is doing is out of sheer love and consideration for their well-being.
  • Spend time with them. A child’s going away for college can be a very emotional stage of life for every parent. Students should make sure to spend quality time with their parents as often as possible
  • It pays to talk to one’s parents in case students are feeling troubled or anxious about the eventual move. This will help both parties to alleviate any uneasy feelings.


Freshman Year

During their first semester at college, many students have to walk a tightrope of emotions; the need to strike a balance between the excitement of meeting new people in a new environment and the feeling of nostalgia of life back home is overwhelming. Still, in order to help their child properly adjust to their surroundings, it is important for parents to communicate openly with their child without infringing on their privacy.


Tips for Parents:

  • Set a time that is convenient for both. Parents should not expect to be in touch with their child every minute of every day. Students should be given the chance to learn more about their new environment and adjust accordingly. It is best to set a time that is mutually convenient for both.
  • Use email. Parents will be surprised by the ease with which they will be able to communicate with their child using email. Students find this particular medium more appealing as they do not have to deal with any kind of negative behavior normally expected from parents.
  • Beware of signals. Parents should be vigilant enough to pick up on various signals that indicate whether their child is homesick or caught up in some other problem. In such cases, they may arrange for help through proper college channels.
  • Be open-minded. When visiting their child’s college campus for the first time, parents should understand that they have now entered territory that their child can proudly claim ownership to. It is important to then appreciate their sense of independence and encourage them to take the lead.


Tips for Students:

  • Stay in touch. For students, it is hard to understand a parent’s need to be updated about what is happening in their lives. However, that is only because they care for them deeply and wish to be a part of their lives. It is important that students set out at least one day every week to talk to their parents.
  • Don’t offload problems. Though it is always advisable for children to keep their lines of communication open with their parents, a line should be drawn at the point where it gets to be too much. Parents tend to worry a lot when it comes to their children so if a child is being a bit too open about problems at college, it may cause unnecessary stress.
  • First Visit Home. The first visit home from college is seen as a time of great joy and although it indeed it is, that doesn’t mean it does not come with its own set of challenges. Students living away from home have had enough time to adjust to a new, independent lifestyle and may find it difficult to settle in an environment that is based on routine and rules. Similarly, parents might find it hard to accept this new change in their child, thus making room for possible confrontation.


Tips for both Parents and Students:

  • One of the most important things for parents to realise that their child has had their first taste of independent living and will therefore not necessarily agree to the kind of lifestyle he/she led before leaving for college. That does not, however, mean that the rules no longer apply to the child. It is best for both parents and children to sit together and chalk out a set of rules that appeal to both.Similarly, children cannot expect their parents to accept the kind of behavior they have been used to exhibiting while away at college. What children need to understand is that now that they are home, they are on their parents’ territory. Therefore, certain rules have to be obeyed. Of course, communication is key here as through communication can both parties convey what they truly feel and whether certain rules should be applied or not.