Tips for Helping Parents

Changes Leading to Independence

Although it may be difficult to see your child leave home, remember s/he is learning skills leading not only to a successful education and career, but also to a satisfying life. As a student becomes more self sufficient, his/her reliance on you will begin to change. He/she needs the freedom to formulate personal goals and plans. Your ability to be flexible will be a steadying influence on his/her change. He/she needs the courage to experience the ups and downs of new challenges with the knowledge that you will be there to help. As you begin to relinquish more and more of your control, your child will learn to help and be helped by others. It will be important for your child to know the security of his/her home is always there, and that a parent is still a parent even when encouraging and allowing for more independence.

Changes Leading to Self-Discovery and Identity Formation

As your child grows, a normal part of his/her development will be experimentation with a variety of roles in an effort to establish his/her individuality. As a parent you may find this both amusing and alarming. We hope it will comfort you to know that after experimenting with these various roles, the vast majority of young adults return to the values and beliefs learned at home. However, as the experimentation takes place, you may find it challenging to understand and support what is going on with your son or daughter. You can make a significant contribution to his/her growth by allowing him/her the liberty to explore various alternatives and come to his/her own conclusions about things like academic major, career options, friends, and other lifestyle choices. You can also serve as a role model for openness to change while remaining constant with your personal values. It will also be important for you to realize that inevitably some of your child’s choices will be different than yours or less than perfect.

Changes in Relationships

Here at the University of Central Florida, students meet people from different geographic locations as well as different ethnic backgrounds and cultures. They will be encouraged to appreciate the diversity among people. It will be important for parents to share in this process and encourage the exploration of our diverse world. As students become more familiar with diversity, they will become more comfortable learning from and interacting with different types of people. UCF offers a multicultural environment to promote the attainment of better communication skills and improved management of relationships with others. You become the beneficiary as your son or daughter develops maturity, gains more wisdom, and is better able to live in this diverse world.

1. “Help!”/”Don’t help!”

It is sometimes frustrating for parents to go through the growth process with their children, not knowing how to be helpful and receiving messages that are unclear or incomplete. Students may add to the uncertainty by changing rapidly. As a parent, it can be difficult to know when to help, when to step back, and how worried to get. Usually a parent’s best guideline is to provide a steady, supportive home base while recognizing that there will be ups and downs in students’ needs and expectations. Try to follow the lead of your son/daughter and help them balance their thoughts and emotions to make their best decisions. Let them know that you respect their right to make a decision and that you will serve as an advisor when asked. Remind yourself to notice and appreciate the new skills they develop; students often want their families to recognize their progress toward becoming adults. And remember, take care of yourself in this “Help!”/”Don’t Help!” process that may cause you a lot of confusion and exhaustion.

2. “So whose decision is it anyway?”

Most parents have a high investment in their student’s decisions. Problems arise, however, when parents are more invested in those decisions than students. It can be hard to lessen involvement in a student’s decisions out of fear that the student won’t assume responsibility. The irony is that students often don’t step up to the task of being responsible until parents step back. After all, it’s easier to ignore problems when someone else is worrying about it for them Taking a step back as a parent is uncomfortable, and at times frightening, because there is no guarantee that students will assume responsibility nor that they will make the same decision as you would. The fear that the student is not accepting responsibility in the interim makes most parents lose a lot of sleep. Consider providing a concerned voice (“we’re interested in what you decide, but we know you have to sort this out for yourself.”) and remind yourself that you are helping by working with your student on developing his/her own decision-making skills.

3. “College is different than I thought it would be.”

For many students, leaving home means finding out what both college and life is all about. Academic expectations are more rigorous than in high school. Students accustomed to receiving “A’s” and “B’s” have to work much harder to earn the top grades in college. They also have to figure out when they should be studying and how to motivate themselves to do so. They must also learn when to ask for help and when to resolve issues on their own. Coming face to face with new challenges is common in college. Finding support in dealing with these challenges is equally important. The university has many resources (e.g., personal counseling, academic advisement, health and wellness services, career development, and much more) to address students’ needs. In their quest for independence, students sometimes assume that being an adult means that it isn’t necessary to ask questions or seek help. Parents can remind students that asking questions and using available resources reflects maturity, and that this does not detract from their autonomy or growth as an adult. Likewise, parents and other family members can serve key roles in providing this guidance. Students tell us that it is important to know that their parents will offer consistent support as they venture out to meet the world. The influential role which parents have in the lives of students continues through college and beyond.

4. “I’m back!”

The first visit home from college is usually an interesting one for the entire family. Students may return home thinking that their newly found independence will be recognized and appreciated by the family. In contrast, parents and siblings continue to live in their usual style and expect that the established “house rules” will still apply. Parents can anticipate that their expectations will differ from those held by students during those first visits home. Instead of creating a situation in which a battle ensues, seeking a compromise that honors both the family’s needs and the growing independence of the student might be an appropriate goal. If your son or daughter is commuting to school from home, consider the ways in which his or her new level of responsibility and independence will be acknowledged in the home. Describing the many experiences which students and their families will have during college is not possible because every family is different. The professional staff at (CAPS) would be happy to talk with you about your specific situation.

Of course, you are still a parent to your son or daughter, and he or she still needs your support and guidance during the college years. Here are some ways you can express your caring and enhance your child’s experience at college:

1. Stay in touch!

Even though your child is experimenting with independent choices, he or she still needs to know that you’re there and are available to talk over both normal events and difficult issues. Make arrangements to write or call your child on a regular basis.

2. Allow space

Allow space for your child to set the agenda for some of your conversations. If he or she needs help or support, the subject is more likely to come up if you aren’t inquiring pointedly about what time he or she came in last night. Your role is to listen actively and try to understand what they are saying or trying to say. Change your role from boss to consultant.

3. Be realistic with your college student about financial matters.

Most students come to school with a fairly detailed plan about how tuition, fees, books, and room and board will be paid for, and what the family’s expectations are about spending money. Being specific at the outset may help avoid misunderstandings later.

4. Be realistic about academic achievement and grades.

The University of Central Florida attracts bright students, and not every freshman who excelled academically in High School will be a 4.0 student here. Developing 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 university.

5. Encourage them to use available UCF resources.

If your child does experience difficulties, encourage him or her to take advantage of the many campus resources available for students. The Counseling Center is always available to help your son or daughter if they should experience difficult times.

It is not unusual for a student to come to the college having already received counseling at home. Others may not have previous counseling experience but might have a difficult time in making the transition to college. In either of these circumstances, students and parents are advised to use the consultation services of the Counseling Center to get information about the best options available to them. Parents are also reminded that their continued support and involvement is often crucial to the well being of the student.

What About Confidentiality?

Counseling often involves the disclosure of sensitive personal information. Any information a client shares with CAPS staff members is protected by professional ethics and state law. Therefore, the information shared in counseling will not be disclosed to anyone (except in circumstances which would result in clear danger to the student or others, or as may be required by law) without a student’s written permission. The center will not even disclose whether a student has used our services. It is certainly understandable that you may wish to be involved when your son or daughter seeks counseling. Often, the best source of information for parents about their counseling is from the student. If more information is desired, the student (if they are 18 years or older) must sign a written release specifically permitting us to communicate with parents. While it is not legal or ethical for CAPS to provide parents with information that their child reveals in counseling, parents are always welcome to call the Center and provide us with information or share concerns about your child. For more information, visit our confidentiality page.

  • Anxiety and depression — these are two of the more common symptoms which can significantly impair a student’s functioning.
  • Physical Concerns such as loss of appetite or excessive eating, insomnia or excessive sleeping.
  • Traumatic changes in personal relationships — such as death of a family member or friend, divorce, or separation in the family, pregnancy, etc.
  • Disordered eating or body image concerns – such as bulemia, anorexia, body dysmorphia etc…
  • Significant changes in mood or behavior — such as withdrawal from others, spells of unexplained crying or outbursts of anger, or unusual agitation.
  • Alcohol and drug abuse — evidence of excessive drinking, drug abuse or drug dependence is very often indicative of psychological problems.
  • Career indecision — often these concerns reflect the student’s struggle to understand themselves, their interests, abilities, and goals. Often this is a normal developmental struggle while other times it reflects a difficulty with decision-making in general.
  • Academics Issues— such as contemplating dropping out of school, worrying about possible academic failure, or considering a transfer to another school.
  • References to suicide — since it is difficult to distinguish between serious threats or passing idle thoughts of suicide, judgment about the seriousness of a situation is best made in consultation with a trained mental health professional.

Additional Resources:

  1. Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years, by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger.
  2. Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years, by Helen E. Johnson and Christine Schelhas-Miller.