At Harvey Mudd, we understand that having your child begin his or her university career can be a stressful experience for you, especially if your son or daughter hasn’t lived away from home before. During this important time of transition for the family, many parents put their own feelings and reactions on hold while helping their child prepare for university life. Attending to your own emotional needs as well as your child’s will go a long way toward helping everyone feel comfortable with the challenges that going to college represents. We would like to offer some suggestions that might help you with this new transition.
Stay in touch! Be clear about your expectations, and at the same time be willing to negotiate with your child regarding the extent of contact that both of you would like to maintain.
Allow space for your child to set the agenda for some of your conversations. If your child needs support or has a concern, the subject is more likely to come up if you ask some general questions regarding how they are doing rather than inquiring pointedly about what time they came home last night.
Be tolerant of the adjustment and separation process. Try to be supportive and accepting of who your child is and where he/she is at in their development.
Be flexible and willing to encourage your child’s decision-making process. Work on establishing a more adult rapport with your child.
Be a resource for your child, and also encourage your child to take advantage of the wealth of resources available for students.
Surviving Empty-Nest Syndrome
What is it? The empty nest syndrome can be described as a parental/familial response (sometimes maladaptive) to the experience of family life after the children have grown up and moved on to college, work, marriage or their own independent lives. It is usually stimulated by one’s reactions of loss. For parents, this can be a time of experiencing a wide array of thoughts, feelings and emotional reactions. Some experience joy, fulfillment and relief, while others feel loneliness and anxiety or a mixture of both good and bad feelings. These feelings are natural and there is an adjustment process for parents.
- Recognize that feelings of ambivalence about your child’s leaving home are normal.
- Allow yourself to feel whatever emotions come up, and find a support system with others to share the experience with. Spend some time with your significant other, friends, partner, etc., especially during the first few months after your child has entered college.
- Make “overall wellness” a goal for yourself since transitions can often be stressful. Do exercise regularly, get enough sleep and eat regularly. If you are feeling good, you are more likely to have the energy to help your child with his or her transition.
- Find a new creative outlet for yourself. Do some things you’ve always wanted to do but never had time. Find a new hobby, pick up an old interest or establish new goals.
- Do give yourself praise! Be proud of doing your best as a parent, and trust your child.
Phases of Freshman Adjustment
Many first year students go through various phases of transitions during their first year in college. Below are descriptions of each phase and suggestions of how to support your child during each stage.
1. HONEYMOON PHASE
During the Honeymoon Phase, students are filled with all sorts of emotions ranging from the excitement of being in college and meeting new people to homesickness and loneliness. Below are some typical transitional stresses your students may be going through. These include:
Initial homesickness, not having immediate support, letting go
Getting used to new place
Sharing private space with a roommate
Doing laundry and other unfamiliar chores for the first time
Setting up room, bank accounts, getting email access, books
Meeting new people, not belonging/fitting in
Being alone and away from parents for the first time
Making first impression
- Stay in touch! Make sure you and your child understand how often and when to call based upon a mutual agreement. What mode of communication would be easiest for the both of you--email or cell phone? Be flexible with your child’s schedule during the first couple of weeks, as there may be many activities and schedule changes during this time.
- You may want to send a care package or card in the first month. This could include quarters for laundry, photos, homemade cookies or whatever else you feel would encourage your child.
- Try to listen to their feelings and experiences, including their social and academic concerns.
2. END OF HONEYMOON
The end of the honeymoon phase usually entails hitting the “Mudd academic reality." Harvey Mudd is unlike many other colleges in terms of its academic rigor and work demands. Students often struggle with the following:
Responsibilities of being a college student (Are they prepared? Are they waking up for class, meeting deadlines, completing homework assignments?)
Schedule changes, making their own decisions and rules about their life
Loss of self esteem; Going from being the “top of the class” to being “average” and not getting the grades they want
Challenges of the work load--“Not enough time to get their homework completed!”
Moving from being an independent worker towards working collaboratively in teams and study groups
Developing new study skills which are appropriate at Mudd and different from high school
Fear about low grades and disappointing parents
Pressure to feel connected to others
Learning to deal with roommate/suitemates
Making decisions about alcohol, social activities, dating, extracurricular involvement
- Listen and encourage them to get into study groups and to take advantage of the academic excellence program, the writing center, study groups and professors' office hours.
3. THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER
It is not uncommon for students to doubt and wonder if they are a right fit for Harvey Mudd or if Harvey Mudd is the right college for them. Many students begin to wonder if they would be happier if they had gone to a different school. Thus, for some students the feelings of homesickness may intensify during this time.
- Understand their ambivalence/expectations/disappointments. Listen and encourage them to be patient.
- Check in with them more consistently during this time so they don’t feel further abandoned.
- Encourage them to speak with their proctors, academic dean or faculty.
4. YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN
Students may feel different once they return for fall break or the holidays. They may feel that their parents don’t fully understand their experiences. They may not share their college experiences if they have not been positive. They may also feel distant or disconnected with their friends from high school. They may feel that they don’t have a place they can fully call “home.”
- Check in with them after weekend visits and after each break.
- Be understanding and patient with them. Know they are absorbing a lot of new information and adapting to the changes during this time.
- Connect them to their proctors or Dean of Students Office to inquire about activities on or off campus that are available to them during the breaks if they remain on campus.
5. INITIAL COPING BEHAVIOR
Some positive coping behavior and healthy adjustment entail involvement in the college community, general optimism and enthusiasm, building new relationships, maintaining adequate sleep and nutrition and engagement with academic work.
Poor coping behavior and signs of difficulty in adjustment entail loss of interest in activities, avoiding others, isolating, sleeping in, skipping classes and assignments, drinking excessively, feeling hopelessness, increase of anxiety and not replying to messages from home.
- Ask questions: “I noticed________ behavior, and I am wondering/ concerned about____________?"
- Listen for what they truly need. Allow them to be able to struggle, and assist them in brainstorming ideas to get the help they need.
- Refer them to the Associate Dean of Student Emotional Health or Monsour Psychological and Counseling Center. Contact the Dean of Students Office to inform us of your concerns.
6. RENEWED FEAR OF FAILURE
Towards the end of the semester or the year, there may be a renewed sense of fear of not being able to pass their courses, especially if they have been struggling or procrastinating.
- Reassure and comfort your child. Assist them in focusing on their previous successes and strengths.
- Encourage your child to go to study sessions, tutors, peers and professors.
- Encourage them to speak to the Academic Dean if they need to drop any courses.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
It generally takes students about a semester to put everything together, such as balancing their time, priorities and goals and developing realistic expectations about their college experience.
- Affirm their progress and continue to give them space to grow independently. Check in with them less frequently but let them know you are still available as a resource.