Making the Transition

The following suggestions may be helpful to parents, especially those who are sending a son or daughter to college for the first time.

Focus on communication rather than control

Pay attention to how your student is adjusting. Ask questions, but also watch for signs, such as coming home every weekend or rarely mentioning friends, that may point to adjustment problems. Offering direct advice may be seen as interference; instead you might ask your student about the steps he or she has already taken and other options, such as contacting student organizations on campus, that may be worth exploring.

Be supportive

This may mean simply listening, or maybe sending a care package. Remind your student that you are there whenever needed, but don't be discouraged if you detect a new unwillingness to discuss relationships and activities. Never force communication; it is enough for your student to know you are there.

Adjust expectations

Competition is keener in college that in high school. Straight-A student may have to struggle for the first time to maintain a B average. A sense of failure and shock may set in if your son or daughter discovers that his or her identity as an “overachiever” may in fact be fragile. Parents need to reassure their students that these experiences and feelings are normal. Also keep in mind that developing social connections and a sense of community are no less important than academic success. The student who maintains a high grade point average but has difficulty making friends may need help with the adjustment process.

Expect changes

For many students, the impulse to challenge assumptions and cultivate experimental self-images intensifies in college. Your student may come home looking different, sounding different, and acting different. These changes are to be expected. You may also notice weight gain in your student (the “freshman 15”). In fact, weight gain or loss is common during stressful periods. Be aware that an inordinate focus on weight and body image can signal or set the stage for eating disorders.

Be positive

Send letters of encouragement. It is normal to experience grief when your child leaves home, but don't describe this in detail to your student. Instead, it may help to emphasize the new opportunities that both you and your student now enjoy.

Anticipate the potential impact of changes at home.

Research shows that the parent-student relationship figures importantly in the overall adjustment to college. Also important is the relationship between parents. Parents who are embroiled in their own problems may not be aware of their student's difficulties. The student may be reluctant to “worry” them. When major upheavals such as divorce occur, you may want to encourage your student to seek counseling.

Promote your student's sense of security

Talk with your student before making changes to your home, such as converting his or her bedroom to suit a different purpose. For some students, this sense of security is important; others don't care.

Allow freedom

This is a time to explore. Most students change their majors an average of three times. Freshman year is the year to taste variety.

Share your experience

It may be helpful to share your experience of transition to college (if you went), but remember that your student's experience may be different. For example, today's young adults deal with increasing multiculturalism and a different economic climate. Also, parents tend to remember the so-called good old days. Your student may wonder what is wrong with him or her if he or she is not having a great time. Most students eventually find a niche and learn from the experience.

Educate your student

Have they read the Student Handbook ? Do they know their CA ? Do they know the location of the Health Service and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)? Are they talking to their adviser? Did they attend the New Student Week workshops dealing with campus safety, sexual assault, and alcohol ? Do they know where to go for help?

Be patient

Don't panic if your student is experiencing difficulty adjusting to college. Some students expect to start deep friendships as soon as they arrive on campus. It may be helpful to remind them that their high school friendships took awhile to form, and new relationships at Northwestern will take time as well. Other students are thrown by the large size of the University. Some are adjusting to the culture shock of a cold weather climate or cultural challenges associated with Northwestern's geographical region.

Expect resistance

It is difficult to return to old rules at home when your student has experienced the freedom to make many kinds of decisions at college. Again, this is a normal stage of individuation. Sometimes a mutually respectful talk upon returning home can help both sides communicate needs and expectations.

Take your student seriously

Take your student's anxieties about schoolwork and relationships seriously. The most common concerns raised by students visiting the student counseling service involved anxiety and stress about schoolwork and relationships. Resolution of these concerns is one key to a stable identity. Encourage your student to contact CAPS if needed.

Let your student make mistakes

This is probably the hardest suggestion, but it's also the most important. Your student's mistakes may be some of the most valuable learning opportunities he or she has.


You've done your part. Keep the lines of communication open and appreciate the wonder of your student's development!