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With kid at college, it's time to parent from afar

Make sure your child is 'smart about being stupid,' expert says

By Alexa Aguilar, Special to the Tribune

July 25, 2012

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In a few weeks, thousands of parents, after saying goodbye to their children, will be driving away from college campuses with lumps in their throats.

That transition to college can be a tough one for both the child and parents. For advice on how mothers and fathers can best parent from afar during this new life stage, we turned to Chicagoan Harlan Cohen, a professional speaker, nationally syndicated advice columnist and best-selling author of "The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College" and "The Naked Roommate: For Parents Only."

Q: The understanding is that helicopter parenting of a college student is a negative thing. But is it actually a detriment? Studies have shown students with helicopter parents are more involved and more satisfied with their experience.

A: I don't like the term helicopter parenting because it's a negative term. I love involved parents. It's a great thing to be involved. The question is how involved is too involved. This generation of parents is facing unprecedented challenges when it comes to creating boundaries and deciding how involved is involved enough.

Because parents care so much and see so much — they can literally see things happening in their kids' rooms via Facetime and Skype — they tend to be brought into the experiences more than any other parent before them. With all of this information and this front-row seat comes more responsibility. … It is fundamental for parents to understand that college is inherently uncomfortable sometimes. If a parent knows what is normal and what is normally uncomfortable, ... (that ) parent is less likely to become panicked and to become too involved (during the uncomfortable moments). A parent who has a baseline of what is normal and healthily uncomfortable is a parent who can handle all of the issues.

Q: What is that baseline? What are some "typical" problems that parents may panic about unnecessarily?

A: Two-thirds of students admit feeling homesickness or loneliness. That's just part of it. ... The answer isn't at home. Half have roommate issues. … It's not a problem, it's normal. Students will struggle academically or they'll have some academic trouble. One out of four college students ends up transferring their sophomore year. … (A) majority of students are anxious or uncomfortable. … They need to be patient: It doesn't take two weeks or two months for people to find their place. It can take up to two years. A parent who understands this will be much more understanding of a student's struggles.

Q: What's a good goal for communication with your child away at college? What method and how often?

A: How often you stay in touch can really vary. It tends to be a lot during the first couple months. One way to approach it is to, over the summer, have that conversation with (your) son or daughter. Having the conversation before will help navigate that. … For the parent, a general rule would be to let your son or daughter do most of the calling. It's not only calling, it's texting and email. Every parent needs to know how to text. It's the fastest way to get in touch with your kid. … But you should not be their wake-up call, and you should not be calling to catch them, or to make sure they are doing their homework.

Q: Explain the 24-hour rule.

A: Basically, the 24-hour rule is that if there is a problem — not a serious, life-threatening situation, but when there is a problem — give your child 24 hours to work through it on her own. A lot of these problems will resolve themselves. We don't allow our kids the space to be uncomfortable.

Q: How should parents parent from afar when it comes to parties, alcohol or sex?

A: "The Naked Roommate" can help stimulate some conversations about this. … I say make sure your child is smart about being stupid. You don't want them to do stupid things, but the reality is that some kids are going to be stupid. So don't be so stupid you kill yourself, don't experiment so much that you die.

Tell them to "Get help before you need it," that "I'll never be upset with you for getting help."

I think also that if a student struggles with the party side of the experience, parents should appreciate that there is something deeper going on.

Q: When should a parent become directly involved?

A: If a parent feels like their kid is struggling and is in a really bad place, a visit to campus is a really great thing to do. Rather than the son or daughter coming home, you can walk down the hallway, you can see the people who are in your son or daughter's corner, you can talk to them.

If you feel like your son or daughter is struggling, get them the name of a therapist in the community and try to do it on campus. You can also give your child's roommate your number and say only call me if my son or daughter is in serious danger. ... They're not an informant, they are a rescuer.

Q: What about a disastrous roommate that the child just can't get along with?

A: A lot of times parents don't recognize that it's your son or daughter that is the roommate from hell. There are three questions you want to ask. The first: Does your kid want to get along? ... No. 2, is your child expecting a best friend or just a roommate? Roommates are people who share space, they are not automatic friends. When a child expects that, often times they become the roommate from hell.

The third thing is do they live by the uncomfortable rule, and that rule is to agree to talk about things that make them uncomfortable within 24-48 hours. Talking to the parent is helpful, but talking to the roommate about the problem is great and much more helpful.

If your child's roommate doesn't want to get along, then that's where the residential life staff can help out. Most situations resolve themselves because the roommate realizes you don't need to be my friend.

Q: You mentioned a child feeling homesick or out of place. How should a parent handle their feelings of sadness?

A: I talk about the three P's ... for parents and students: patience, places and people. Patience: It's not two months, it's not two semesters, it can take two years. Places: They need to have three places where they can find connections, and people who can be in their corner. Everyone needs to have five people they can turn to during this transition. For students, it can be an upperclassman, res life staff, a counselor. For parents, all the people at orientation, res life staff, student affairs professionals, therapist; it could be other parents who have been there and done that.