The 5 Biggest Mistakes Parents Make When Kids Go To College
When our kids started college my wife and I were as nervous and excited as they were. We mostly knew what to expect, but still worried as they started classes and made new friends. Thankfully they loved their college experiences, with only a few difficulties and mistakes made by them and by us. Here are some lessons we learned, and some mistakes we have seen parents make.
Not Praying Specifically Enough
Students often deal with identity and relationship issues, and such struggles rarely have easy answers. Many students seem to regress, questioning some core values and ideas, seeking clarity on ultimate truths, and figuring out what they truly believe – apart from their parents. As parents, we need to see this journey not as something to be avoided or to protect them from, but a call to be in daily prayer for them—for their hearts to be soft to the Lord, receptive to His callings, and their relationships to bring them closer to Jesus. Pray for their friends and their roommates by name. Lift up their faculty and resident assistants and directors. Ask God to reveal Himself to your student by any and all means—through His word, chapels, classes, faculty, and even struggles and pain.
As parents, we need to see this journey not as something to be avoided or to protect them from, but a call to be in daily prayer for them.
Trying to Control the Uncontrollable
Your student wants to change their major, but you are paying for their education, and feel you should have a say in such a decision. What do you do? I suggest you not try to control the uncontrollable. Many things in life are beyond our influence — particularly the behavior of other people and college-aged children. Rather than stressing, focus on the things you can control, such as the way you choose to react to problems. Many students change majors three times before graduating. And most employers are more concerned with having a college degree than having one specific major. Making a “mistake” about an academic major is rarely fatal, and often used by God to shape and build us in new and unforeseen ways.
Not Knowing When to Pull Back
Your student is starting to date someone, and you believe they are making a mistake. As a longtime professor and now the director of the Center for Marriage and Relationships (CMR) I am happy to report that the majority of our students are savvy in relationships, well adjusted, and are skilled at knowing good friends from fake ones. They usually get their relationships right—knowing what is healthy and what is toxic—and most avoid major negative consequences. Stay encouraged, and trust the process and journey your student is on. When it comes to matters of the heart, your young-adult still needs your advice, prayers, and perspectives, but they must usually figure these things out on their own. Entrust them into God’s hands, knowing he has plans for their welfare, to give them a future and a hope.
They usually get their relationships right—knowing what is healthy and what is toxic—and most avoid major negative consequences. Stay encouraged, and trust the process and journey your student is on.
Not Knowing When to Step-In
There are common life issues that affect many students—stress, sleep difficulties, relationship/family problems, depression, and anxiety. Romantic heartbreak can also disrupt their ability to carry out daily activities or engage in satisfying relationships. Surveys show 30% of college freshman report feeling regularly overwhelmed, and 46% of college students felt “things were hopeless” at least once a year. If this is your student, direct action may be necessary. Initiate help if they have frequent thoughts of self-criticism or blame, pessimism, impaired memory, and concentration, and/or thoughts of death and suicide. Listen and reassure them, and seek information on support strategies (pastoral or resident life counseling) and professional help. We have a wonderful counseling center, caring faculty, and places like the CMR that can provide guidance and referrals to professionals.
Not Knowing When to Let Go
A common mistake made by parents is figuring out when to allow them to make important decisions on their own, and knowing when to step-in and exercise parental authority. Your student comes home on Christmas break but is spending more time with their friends than with the family. Maybe they are discussing finding an apartment with some friends and not coming home at all during the summer. Some parents simply say no or refuse to provide any financial help. Other parents resort to being passive aggressive—making them feel guilty for wanting to spend more time with their friends than family. There are few simple answers, but here is a recommendation from the prophet Isaiah:
“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 43:18-19
We often miss the transformative ways God is shaping our students. We recognize the deserts and the wilderness, but fail to see or trust the Provider who sustains and protects. Being lost in the wilderness or desert can be lonely and frightening, but God makes pathways, and He provides the rivers. Ask God for clear thinking and to see things from his view, and for trusting that He is in control. God is shaping thoughts and hearts and dreams and relationships, growing and transforming our students in ways unknown. Ask God to reveal this in His timing, and then look expectantly for the pathways and the rivers that are sure to follow.
Christopher Grace serves as the director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and teaches psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Alisa, speak regularly to married couples, churches, singles and college students on the topic of relationships, dating and marriage. Grace earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Colorado State University.