Off to College, Parenting Still Required

Originally published in MI Living, August 2017.

Graduation caps

Parenting doesn’t stop when kids graduate.

As summer vacations wane, many Island parents will send their children off to college. These young adults say good-bye to childhood haunts, schools, and friends and prepare not only for a new campus, but for a whole new stage of life. Parents, too, must enter a new phase. Having an “empty nest” does not mean you can stop parenting.

As any parent of an adult child will tell you, parenting does not stop once your child goes to college. In fact, some will suggest it never stops – for good reason. Youth do better socially, psychologically, and economically as adults due both to nurturing parenting birth-18, and due to parents who stage engaged thru approximately age 25. Just like parenting a toddler is different than parenting a pre-teen, so is parenting a college student different than parenting a high schooler. And all are vitally important.

The need to continue parenting through the college years is partially rooted in brain science. The frontal lobes of the brain, often referred to as the brain’s “executive manager,” is the last area to fully develop. Up to ages 24-26, the brain’s ability to make effective decisions is still forming. Structurally, the process of myelination is involved. This is the coating, over time, of axons of some nerve cells in a fatty tissue “myelin” that allows neural signals to travel through the brain more quickly and without a loss of signal—in essence to allow the brain to function more efficiently and eventually to make more mature decisions.

Before this process is complete the brain is primed for malleability and learning but not necessarily wisdom. Yet at the same time, hormones and other environmental and physical processes lead young adults to feel invulnerable and wiser than they really are.

Ever find yourself wanting to yell, “What were you thinking!” to children at this age? In fact, without a completely myelinated brain, they might not be developmentally ready to think in the way we would expect.

So parents must not stop parenting when a child leaves for college, but shift how they parent. Some parent coaches refer to as the “cheerleader” stage:

  • Stay connected through regular check-ins that are unobtrusive. Listen to your child to determine frequency, but aim for at least monthly. Care packages are great even if you hear nothing back.
  • Be a sounding board and offer advice when asked. Allow them to express both learning and struggles. Instead of lecturing or teaching, facilitate their thought process and ask questions so they can develop confidence in their own choices.
  • Learn about the resources available to them and help them to identify what they need and where to seek this information.
  • Let them know you are open to having conversations about issues relevant to their new stage in life. Maintain clear expectations for age appropriate topics. Discuss alcohol and drug use, sexual and physical safety, and other risk behaviors on campus. Explore these topics when appropriate, with facts, and speak from a place of concern for their well-being.

Parents who convey confidence and facilitate problem solving from a distance will help young adults face the trials and challenges of college successfully. Consistent parenting through the college years will allow students to borrow a little of your wisdom until their brains are ready to develop some of their own.

By Cynthia Goodwin, Director of Mercer Island Youth & Family Services. 
To learn more, volunteer or request services, please contact the main office at (206) 275-7611. 

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