Each college student needs different things upon entering and moving through these developmentally full-years. Some students need to share about their experience with their parents, some may need distance, and some may seek a great deal of input. Each student is unique and will present with different needs and may need time to even discover what their needs are in this new environment.
As students move through their time at college, each year brings its own set of challenges, opportunities and hurdles.The role of counseling can be very helpful in supporting your college student through this uncertain terrain. Some students would like to share more with their parents about these obstacles, or about new mental health concerns that may be arising in the midst of all this transition and change. However, what we hear frequently from students is that they are often hesitant to share with their parents about all that they are encountering because they are concerned or fearful of their parents' reaction. It is important for you to know that one deterrent of your student talking to you could be the way you may respond.
We'd like to share some blunt (and maybe too straight) thoughts with you from our combined 58 years of experience counseling college students. Are you sitting down?
- If your college student comes to you sharing that they would like to attend, or are already attending counseling, please respond as neutrally as possible. This is the number one barrier we hear from students in feeling free to share their struggles with you. Do your best not to overreact, respond in an angry, shocked or disappointed tone or pepper them with 30 questions. Most importantly though, please do not tell them, “You’re fine, you don’t need to go to counseling you can just talk to me.” Your child is contemplating, or has already taken, an important independent step in caring for themselves and is taking responsibility for their health and wellness. They are trying to seek support which is a healthy, mature and important step for any adult.
- Many parents respond reactively, or minimize their college student’s need for seeking support because of what it “means for the family.” If they seek out counseling, it does not mean you were, or are a bad parent and it does not mean you have failed as a parent. Your college student seeking counseling may mean however, that you might have to deal with your own concerns or fears about how you or your family are perceived. Again, vulnerability is not always a practice that comes easily to Christians. We believe it is a vital component to living lives reflective of the redemptive healing we can experience as children of God.
- It was likely very hard for your college student to share this information with you. First and foremost, commend them for their courage to share this difficult information with you. Vulnerability is a challenging practice.
- When we ask students, “Have you ever shared this with your parent(s)?” The most common responses are, “No, my mother will cry and get upset/not understand,” and “No, my father will get angry/won’t understand/will be disappointed.” Students often express that they do not want to burden their parents.
- College presents a time of transition for everyone in your family. When one member leaves the family system, the system changes. Use this transition as a time to create, maintain or change patterns that are less healthy and replace them with new patterns of directness, openness, communication, and most of all, the practice of extending and receive grace to one another.
- Family dynamics, under the best of circumstances can result in emotional turmoil and wounds. Use this time of transition and new patterns to ask for forgiveness, admit fault, and name the un-nameable. It is never too late to take ownership of the ways you have contributed to another’s pain... and we all have, intentionally or not.
- Ask them open-ended questions about what is going on for them. Do not ask questions that are intended to determine your fault in the matter at hand. As much as you try to bury these questions under concern for their well-being, they see through it. We promise.
- Ask them directly how you can support them, and do your best to try and follow through on what they have requested, even if they have asked for space, or time. Help is only helpful if the person receiving it experiences it as such.
- Encourage self-determination--you will likely learn more about the resilient strengths your child has. If they are at a point where they cannot share very much, please give them the space they need and assure them that you are there when/if they’re ready.
Ask or say:
How can we support you?
What are your thoughts about how you might deal with that situation?
What has it been like for you?
What types of things have helped you in the past?
Who else do you feel you can share this with so that you have support at school?
Tell me more.
I'm here for you.
- When your college student comes home, please let them retain who they are becoming at school. They may be changing in exciting and healthy ways, but at home it can be hard when “old-self” patterns persist in old family dynamics, old town or church culture, old friends, old ways of coping, etc. Ask them how you can help with this process.
- Ask them before they come home for breaks what their expectations are about their time at home, and share with them about yours. It can be challenging to navigate their new world and who they are in it and then return home where they feel like a middle-schooler again. It can feel isolating and disorienting for them.
- When they are home on break, ask your college student how they are changing.
No, really truly ask them. Don’t ask them what they are learning, how their grades are, how school is going, or whether they are dating. Ask them who they are becoming and how they are changing, and just listen. Do your best to ask and explore, but not to correct or shame the political, theological or sociocultural ideas that conflict with yours. If you do, you will shut them down and you will miss out on the glorious process of learning who your child really is becoming. Be courageous enough to let them disagree with you and explore different personas. Let them share with you their discoveries about who God created them to be, instead of who you hope they become.
- Remember something really, really important: they’re not done yet. The human brain is not even fully formed until at least 25 years of age! The changes you will witness over the next four years if you are patiently watching and listening, are enormous. Have confidence in their own process, in their abilities and in their journey. Remember to be a fan, rather than a critic – it helps move along the development process. We promise.