When I sent my oldest son — my first-born — off to college 1,000 miles away, suffice it to say the nights before we took him to school were sleepless. As I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, I inventoried my parenting choices over the previous 18 years. Topping my list of worries: his living alone, maintaining a scholarship-worthy GPA and having access to drugs and alcohol. (Looking back, I should have worried a lot more about his ability to manage money.)
Since then, I’ve sent three children off to a university or college. Two are now out and gainfully employed, launched into their lives; the last just moved into his own apartment. Though I don’t profess to be any expert in parenting, here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:
You can’t predict how your child will feel. Practically every parent of more than one child knows how very different siblings can be. When my first son left for college I wondered if being so far from home, with more responsibility and more independence, would lead to him feeling depressed or anxious. Having struggled with depression myself I hoped he’d escape this fate, but I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t have the same worries and anxieties with my younger two, especially my daughter. But while the older two didn’t experience anxiety, my youngest son did, starting in the second semester of his freshman year. My clue that something was wrong? He stopped communicating with me via text messages.
Follow your child’s lead. The situation with my youngest son was a tough one to handle because he was so uncommunicative. Finally, he called me in a semi-panic about a class he was struggling to keep up with. We had a long conversation and walked through his class load and schedule. I suggested that he see his adviser to determine what to do — and I told him that if he decided to drop the class he had my support. This opened the door for a deeper conversation in which he revealed that he was feeling completely overwhelmed and some days was having a hard time functioning. I helped him remember the tools we’d used when he was in high school to lessen an overwhelming workload — mostly breaking down assignments and due dates on a calendar, so he didn’t feel like everything was due all at once.
Share your own struggles and what helped you, including therapy. I told my son that I’ve also experienced feelings of anxiety and depression and that it really helped me to see a counselor to talk things through. I said that sometimes there’s more behind the feelings than what we realize, which is why it can be really helpful to talk to someone outside of family or friends. I offered to help him find someone to go to if he was open to it. He didn’t take me up on the offer at the time, but he did during the spring semester of his sophomore year.
Don’t wait to talk about drugs and drinking. Though I was fortunate that none of my kids developed an addiction to any substances, if I had it to do over I’d have had a meaningful conversation about substance use with each of them well before they moved out. With my oldest, I have to admit to having been a little naïve about the realities of campus life. At his “parents-only” orientation, we got a day full of presentations and frank discussions about the realities of sex, alcohol and drugs on campus. It caught me by surprise, to say the least. Hearing that no one from the school would (or legally could) communicate with me about my child’s grades or any visits he might make to the student health center raised a concern I hadn’t considered until that moment: How will I know if something bad happens? Spotting the signs of failure or hurt in an 18-year-old from a distance was going to be a far bigger challenge than comforting a fourth-grader who’d gotten a D on his history test.
I was an expert partier during my college days, so I thought for sure I was in tune with the party scene. But looking back, I realize the only conversation we’d had about drugs and alcohol was on the way home from a high school basketball game when my oldest son was 17. Out of the blue, my youngest son asked, “Mom, have you ever been drunk?” All eyes were on me. In the spirit of honesty (and hoping it would end the conversation), I told him I had. “Have you ever done drugs?” persisted my youngest. “Why don’t you ask your father these questions?” I countered. “Dad, has Mom ever done drugs?” (Clever.) By glossing over the topic and never really talking about it, I silently endorsed partying in college and beyond. If I had been honest with them (and myself), I would have acknowledged that my partying habits in high school and college affected my academic outcome, put me at risk and started a habit that eventually led to alcohol abuse.
Recognize that they are adults now (even if you’re not ready for them to be). With all three of my kids, the thing I feel really good about is that I respected their privacy about grades and life on campus. It’s a big leap of faith when you know you’re no longer going to be getting report cards or attend parent-teacher conferences that will give you insights into how your child is doing in school, both academically and socially. Hard as it can be, it’s really important that kids feel you trust them and that you acknowledge that they’re moving from childhood to being an independent adult. It’s hard not to ask probing questions about their lives and overuse technology in an attempt to stay in touch, but they are adults now and too much probing will push them away.
Go see them at school if you can. Various circumstances prevented my being able to visit my kids while they were at college. This is something I regret not making a priority. It would have been awesome to be able to put faces to names and take them out to dinner “just because.” This sounds small, but in hindsight it feels somewhat significant, as it would have been a great way to stay in touch with what was going on in their lives at the time.
Over the years, I’ve learned what every parent learns: that I can’t protect my children from experiencing pain, but I can keep them safe in my own way. So I give them a safe place to be. They don’t talk to me about every situation (which is probably a good thing), but they know I’m here with open arms, unconditional love, a shoulder to cry on and I’m always accepting and respectful of their feelings. So most of all, I think the best advice I could offer — and the advice I tried to take myself when my children each went off to school — is to trust the job you’ve done in raising your kids.