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Don’t say ‘these will be the best years of your life:' Advice for parents as kids head to college

Karen Levin Coburn first wrote "Letting Go: A Parent's Guide to Understanding the College Years" in 1988. It has has been rereleased four times since.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Karen Levin Coburn first wrote "Letting Go: A Parent's Guide to Understanding the College Years" in 1988. It has has been rereleased four times since.

It’s that time of year again: kids are heading back to school … unless they aren’t and are instead breaking new ground on a college campus. While this time in a young adult’s life can be scary, it also holds significant fears on the part of the parent.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we discussed the transition from high school to college with parents in mind. Joining the program was Karen Levin Coburn, author of “Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years” and senior consultant in residence at Washington University.

The book, originally published in 1988, was recently released in its sixth edition. Coburn said technology has driven a larger amount of change in the past since the last time the book was rereleased, in 2009, than she thought possible.

“This generation of parents is more involved with their students than previous generations,” Coburn said. “… I think it comes out of caring for their children and wanting to keep them safe. I think there is more anxiety in our world in general. Social media exacerbates that. It is a way that parents share ideas through social media, but they also share anxieties.”

Coburn offered several pieces of advice for parents as they wave goodbye to their kids heading off to a new campus:

How often should parents and students be in contact?

Coburn said that, many years ago when she was working as a dean for Washington University, she would have parents calling and saying ‘my daughter is calling every day, should I be worried?’ Back then, that was a worrisome sign. Not so much today.

“Today, that would be nothing,” Coburn said. “What matters is the content of those calls. Is a student walking across campus and saying ‘hi, I just wanted to check in’ or is the student asking ‘I’m having trouble, can you help me?’ or asking for advice on difficult subject matter and not using resources on campus.”

If it is the latter, your child may need more help. If that’s the case, Coburn suggested the parents’ role should be that of the coach.

To learn the resources of a college or university and ask a student to make that connection,” Coburn explained. “That’s why universities have orientation for parents — so parents can be a partner with the college or university, not by interfering, but by coaching their child.”

So when should a parent know to contact their child’s university?

“We know that parents know their children well and if they notice a real change in behavior, if they have a child who sounds depressed or saying ‘I go to the dining hall and I can’t find anyone to eat with’ that may be the time to call a freshman dean or someone is residential life,” Coburn said.

Colleges will tell you who to call specifically, Coburn said. Be forewarned, though, Coburn said: the school may not be able to tell a parent exactly what is going on, but it can function as a listener that then approaches the student with the parent’s concern.

Are parents part of the problem?

Many parents may experience the urge to overwhelm a child with information about their own personal experiences.

“All of us look back on the years when we were 18 and starting a conversation with ‘when I was your age,’ is usually going to be met with rolled eyes from any child,” Coburn said. “On the other hand, parents do carry wisdom. Asking questions and expressing concerns in an open-ended way is really important.”

Don’t be alarmed if a child lashes out at the parent before he or she leaves for college.

“Many students, before they leave, really test the parents because they are trying to break away,” Coburn said. “They’ll stay out late and say things like ‘What do you care what time I come home? Three weeks from now, you won’t know when I come home!’”

That’s part of the process of becoming more independent, Coburn said.

“Students really start to push, and some of it is actually a way to make it easier for them to leave. You will probably see over the course of the year a lot of push-pull,” Coburn said. “They’re giving you mixed messages, acting sometimes like a child and then pushing you away. The best advice I can give is to have a sense of humor, know this is normal and point out to your children your expectations as well.”

Whatever you do, don’t use the phrase ‘these are going to be the best years of your life.’

“If you tell a child that ‘these are going to be the best years of your life’ and they’re thinking about that on a day in which it has become cold, rainy and they have a lot of work to do, the person they’ve fallen in love with has fallen out of love with them, they have the flu … they may think, ‘if this is as good as it gets, I’m in big trouble,’” Coburn said. “Nobody is happy all the time between 18 and 22 and I hope it is not all down hill from there.”

Listen to more advice from Coburn, as she answers listener questions about finances:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.