Parents of College Freshmen: Please Read This

This essay is a far cry from what I normally post on Soul Gatherings,
but as a former Director of a College Counseling Center,
I cannot help but be aware that all across the country,
first year college students are streaming onto their campuses.
That adjustment is difficult for students and parents alike.
Some tongue-in-cheek, but no less real,
situations and their recommendations can be found below.

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10 Signs That You Are Too Attached to Your College Freshman

You are too attached to your college freshman…

1. When you bring your sleeping bag and camp out in your son’s/daughter’s dorm room for the first 2 weeks of classes because you don’t trust his/her roommate with the multiple piercings, black lipstick/nail polish, and vegan diet …

a. The college experience does stretch a person’s comfort zone, and offers each student the opportunity to explore new cultures, different lifestyle choices, various religions and new belief systems. Respect for diversity, acceptance of those who are different and tolerance for being human can be positive results. Push your boundaries.

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2. When you call him or her each morning to get them up in time for their first class…

a. It’s your son/daughter’s responsibility to know their class schedule and show up on time, well-rested, and prepared…not yours.

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3. When you empty your retirement fund to purchase a new Cadillac Escalade SUV (loaded!) so that he/she can come home every weekend…

a. Homesickness is a common issue for many freshmen, but coming home each weekend does nothing to help a freshman adjust to campus life. Encourage your son/daughter to remain on campus to attend an athletic event, go to a movie with a group of friends, or volunteer their time in the local community. This makes for a much healthier and easier transition for both students and parents.

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4. When you drive 2 hours to accompany your son or daughter to the dining hall, after they called you crying because they don’t like to eat alone…

a. Socialization is an important part of college life, and there are many ways a freshman can find someone to share a meal. For example: go with their roommate, ask the RA (Resident Advisor) if they can accompany them, or ask the student sitting alone in the dining hall if you can join them. Other students are lonely, too.

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5. When you text or call your student every 10 minutes, asking if they’re all right…

a. Your student probably is alright. Anyway, they may be in class and unable to text, at dinner with friends, speaking with their coach, taking an exam or doing research in the quiet zone of the library. Arrange a mutually agreed upon time that you can connect with your son/daughter each week, such as Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights at 9 pm. Obviously, reach them any time in an emergency.

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6. When you’ve got your student’s Facebook page open on a computer while you’re at work, alert to every time one of their posts comes up on the news feed…

a. Whether or not an adolescent should friend a parent is a separate issue. Take the opportunity to remind your son/daughter that whatever thoughts or pictures they post on-line is essentially public domain, and this can all come back to haunt them. Employers, graduate schools, colleges, jealous peers, stalkers, predators – the audience is huge, as are the potential consequences.

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7. When you call off work, book a hotel room near campus and bring your laptop in order to write the research paper that is due in your student’s major 2 days from now…

a. Your student gets a syllabus the first day of each class with class assignments and due dates. It is his or her responsibility to be aware of these and to manage their study time well. Just as they’re not getting a paper handed in on time has consequences, so, too, does having someone else write it.

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8. When you retain an individual concierge for your son/daughter to answer their questions, solve their problems, run errands, etc., salaried with a toll free phone number and 24/7 availability…

a. There is a wealth of support available for your son/daughter on campus. When questions or problems arise, encourage your son/daughter to reach out to the Counseling Center, Residence Life, Security & Safety, the Health & Wellness Center, Academic Skills, the Office of Diversity, Student Activities, Campus Ministry, or the Academic Advising Office for direction, answers or advice.

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9. When you take a one day course on voice mimicry so that you can impersonate your son or daughter’s voice in order to discuss his or her grades with a professor…

a. The Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA) prohibits parents from communicating with faculty about their student’s academic performance. (Yes, even though you might be paying the tuition.) Keep an open dialogue with your son or daughter about how they are doing in their classes. Also, allow them to make mistakes without harsh criticism, otherwise they might completely shut you out of the information loop. Adolescence is all about learning to make good decisions, along with learning from ones that are not-so-good. Anyway, I’ve never met anyone who is perfect; have you?

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10. When you call your son/daughter on Sunday morning and they answer the phone, obviously hung over, and, after a stern reprimand from you about underage drinking, you actually believe him/her when they stutter that it was a sanctioned experiment for one of their classes.

John Belushi Animal House

John Belushi
Animal House

Each year as the result of alcohol abuse, 1,700 college students die from alcohol-related causes, 2.8 million students drive while under the influence of alcohol, more than 696,000 students are assaulted by another student under the influence of alcohol, and 11% of drunken students vandalize property, and almost 2% of students attempt suicide because of alcohol or other drug use. (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism)

Alcohol consumption is also associated with poor academic performance, contributing to failing tests, missing classes, falling behind in class work and higher drop-out rates due to poor grades.

Talk to your student about the importance of smart choices while on campus and the potential negative consequences drinking can have on their health, safety and future. This so-called “right-of-passage” is anything but when it can result in addiction, assault, or even death.

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An Adolescent’s Christmas with the Infant of Prague

infant-prague-statue-8-inches-2007991

Working with college students is great.

Before anyone gets into that type of work, however, it would be wise to warn you about the college student brain. Studies have shown that “late adolescence” may actually extend until 25 years old. The scientist in me wants to explain that until then, the neural networks that regulate behavior don’t reach full maturity, making the person subject to sensation-seeking and increased risk-taking, as well as more vulnerable to impulses, emotions, and the effects of alcohol and other drugs.

Still want to work with college students??? (You should. It’s energizing!)

When I explain that to the students themselves, in trying to help them understand the developmental changes during their college years, their reactions – after the shock – divide into two different camps. The first group sits up straighter, usually with an affronted look on their face – “Hey, just one minute! We’re adults, not adolescents!” The other group slouches a bit, eyes glazed, wheels turning, and you can hear them thinking, “Sweet! When I get drunk tomorrow night, I’ll have a great excuse. I couldn’t help it; my brain made me do it…”

My point being that it’s hard to transition from high school to college, and a common problem is the “emotional disconnect” that so many young people seem to have with their parents. Communication is not their strong point (one only has to look at the texts and twitter feeds to see that; while I’m on that topic – Rule #1: Never break up by texting or on Facebook! Man-up or woman-up and do it in person.).

Which brings me to Kristy… Together, she and I worked through a nasty break-up with her boyfriend, a charge of plagiarism by a professor, changing her major, feeling left out as a commuter, drinking too much on weekends, and the struggle with going to college and working a part-time job at the same time. All in an average day in the life of an adolescent. (One good thing – students who commute are spared the drama of roommate issues that flare up with alarming frequency).

But – and there’s always a but – no matter how hard she tried, no matter how much role-playing we did together, Kristy could not seem to reach an uneasy peace – or even a truce – with her mother. There was no father in the picture; only Kristy and her Mom. Finances were, of course, a huge issue, and Kristy’s only ticket to a better life was to keep her grades up in order to keep her scholarships and find some middle ground with her mother. Most times, they didn’t even speak to/with each other.

One day right before Christmas break, Kristy came in with shoulders slumped, looking dejected. (Uh oh – probably another incident with Mom.) I asked her what was wrong. Kristy grabbed a tissue (uh oh, uh oh – Kristy never cries) and started to explain what happened the night before.

She and her Mom were in a particularly tight spot with money, and were behind on rent and other bills. It was bleak enough that they couldn’t even afford to put up a Christmas tree. Last week, we had already discussed that not having money for a gift for her Mom didn’t matter; we Moms love a hug or a hand-made card – nothing else needed. But Kristy felt strongly that if she could only get her Mom something wonderful, their relationship, in this season of joy, would suddenly be terrific – wonderful – like everyone else’s (if Kristy only knew…). So what happened, with a child wanting nothing more than to please her hard-working, single mother?

Kristy had noticed in the past that her Mom cherished a statue she kept all alone on a coffee table in their apartment. Kristy wasn’t supposed to touch it, in case it broke. Sometimes, after coming home from her 2nd job, Kristy would see her Mom take off her sneakers, put her feet up and just stare at the statue, lost in thought.

“That has to be so very special to your Mom; what/who is the statue?”

Kristy struggled with this. “Well, it’s a small boy – looks kind of weird with something like a crown on his head, and his hand is held up like he’s agreeing with Mom – stay away.” She sighed. “Oh, and sometimes she dresses it up in clothes that she made herself, when she still had her sewing machine; you know, kind of like I used to do with my Barbie.”

Okay. The picture in my head is taking shape.

“The statue – was there something like a globe in the little boy’s left hand?”

“Yeah – how did you know?”

“My Mom had the same statue. But what happened?”

Kristy explained that the 2 things her Mom loved most were costume jewelry and this statue. So, thinking of surprising her Mom with something even better than an expensive Christmas tree, Kristy got some of Mom’s favorite, chunky jewelry out of her bedroom and draped the statue with it, Mardi-Gras style. “Lots of bling, you know?” When the statue looked blinged out enough, Kristy draped a string of lights around the statue, too, so it blinked in color and blinged at the same time. “I thought it looked good.”

Now I am trying to keep my “listening intently” look, and not show my concern about where this might lead. “What did your Mom do when she saw it?”

Kristy looked down for a long moment. “She didn’t say a word. She just kept looking at the statue, then at me, then the statue…and she started to cry. So I just went up to my room. Why didn’t she like it?”

Okay. So – how to explain. “Well, I know you meant well, and I’m proud of you for wanting to make your Mom happy with her 2 special things, but that statue… that’s the Infant of Prague – the Child Jesus – and the hand He holds up, like He wants you to stay away so you won’t break Him – that’s the Child Jesus blessing you.”

Kristy’s eyes had that “deer in the headlight” look, horrified and scared at the same time.

“Some might think what you did was sacri – (no – skip that word) disrespectful.”

Her eyes got even bigger. But then she got a twinkle in her eye and covered her mouth with her hands. Remember the high emotion and mood swings in the adolescent make-up? We were there. For only the second time in my work as a therapist, I lost it (for the only other time, see my post “The Welcome Angel.”).

Kristy started to laugh, then I started to laugh. She choked out, “I put bling on Jesus? And Christmas lights???” She alternated between being horrified at what she had done and being proud of herself for rendering her Mom speechless. I laughed right along with her, as I pictured the Infant of Prague decked out for the 21st century.

I tried to explain when I quieted. “You know how you don’t know how to feel right now – upset, but a bit of you thinks it’s funny? That’s probably what happened with your Mom; she was upset with having something other than “proper” clothing on the statue, but happy that you tried so very hard to give her something that would mean so much to her, and maybe even put a smile on her face. It’s okay, Kristy; it will all be okay. Your heart was in the right place.”

What do you think? Was the new appearance appropriate? It sure was! Was the Child Jesus angry with Kristy? Absolutely not. In fact, I think He must have smiled while He watched her face, so intent on dressing Him in something special for her Mom; so intent on pleasing her, so intent on trying to show her that deep down, there was love.

Kristy’s intention was pure; her adolescent love – fickle but piercing in its strength – was on display, her heart vulnerable. And what better time than at Christmas, with the birth of Jesus and a Mother’s love. Who knew that something so innocent could be so wondrous?

You did good, Kristy. You saw with the eyes of your heart, and Jesus smiled with love and understanding; He offered His blessings to you and your Mom.

Indeed – you are a blessing to me as well.

There’s a lot to be said for that adolescent brain, isn’t there? And the heart – don’t forget the heart.