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Off to College: What’s a parent to do?

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by Rebecca Sontag

The days are long but the years are short,” is a well-worn truism. We’ve heard it. We’ve said it. But we haven’t truly understood it until those marathon days of parenting (in the “primary-caregiver” sense) come to an abrupt halt. Right under the noses of attentive and loving parents, night-time feedings somehow morph into curfew patrol and college applications, all in the blink of an eye. Before you know it, the college is chosen and the classes are scheduled. And, just like that, off they go.

A child heading off to college for the first time is a milestone for the whole family. High school grads thrill at the promise their adult lives hold. Dreams are fresh with hope and optimism in both parents and students alike. But there’s a difference, a more somber note for mom and dad. Their baby is leaving home.

Uncertainty, anxiety, excitement and worry are all completely normal feelings in this situation. Mary Mazuk, Director of the Academic Advising Resource Center at Mount St. Joseph University, has some good advice for parents navigating this momentous change for the first time.

1. Trust Yourself and Your Child

You have done your best. You have parented your child, guided them, instilled values and loved them with your all. None of this changes; you’ll still do these things, but trust that you have prepared yourself and your child for this next stage of life. Now is the time to let your child figure it out and learn to be an adult. Encourage them to use the counseling and wellness resources available on campus and solve their own problems. Let them know you are confident that they are ready for this transition. Assure them that they are up for the challenge of making important decisions for themselves. Likewise, they are also capable of managing and dealing with the results and ramifications of their own choices.

2. Be There When They Stumble

At the same time, be their safety net if they fall. Don’t necessarily let them know you’ll be there to catch them. They are learning important lessons and that the stakes are high, but they are still learning and will need your help. Expect them to really need your help at some point, and be there for them when they do.

3. Help Them Be Their Best Selves

Know that all majors readily lead to good jobs, and it’s your son or daughter’s responsibility to choose. Support them in choosing something that excites their interests and appeals to their talents and skills. If your student loves the major they’ve chosen, they’ll be good at it. And if they’re good at it, they’ll be successful. Don’t choose it for them.

Remember their spiritual care. Help them find a nearby parish they can attend, or perhaps Mass is available on campus. If the college is close enough to home, you can suggest continuing to go to church as a family as well.

4. Do Something You’ve Been Putting Off

A big part of your life and your heart now live somewhere else. Instead of filling that newly available time with fretting and sending “just checking in” texts over and over, find something for you. Take up gardening, join a bowling league, volunteer more at church— the options are endless.

College is a great time for learning new things and seeking new experiences. Let this transition help you grow and learn, too. Grow in your marriage, dive deeper into your faith, your church and your community. Keep learning and stay engaged. That’s what you want your children to do, so lead by example. Your role as a parent is shifting and the future holds more exciting changes to come. Who knows what you’ll find when you blink next time?

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