THE BLOG
09/04/2014 11:43 am ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

When Our College Freshman's Launching Starts to Wobble

Andrew Rich via Getty Images

What if the launching of your college freshman gets wobbly, even starts free-falling? What if your freshman phones up, sobbing or hyperventilating? And what if, after the novelty of college life wears off, you hear she hates her roommates, classmates, coursework, the dorm, the food, the campus, the whole college experience? What if, a few months from now, your freshman shows signs of serious dysfunction; he's gaming 15 hours a day, getting himself into a hole academically; she's "pre-gaming," binge-drinking, endangering her health; he's depressed and refusing to leave his dorm room?

We're not prepared for this new set of long-distance worries. We assumed that our parental fretting would recede in the rearview mirror along with the college campus after drop-off. Nor indeed are our freshmen prepared for big new troubles. They'd been swept up into the group-think delusion that leaving for college marks "awesome" liberation from all those pesky responsibilities, restrictions and irritations of home. Our freshmen also don't realize that they will be stalked by, not sprung from, the same old psychological, emotional, social and academic issues that besieged them in high school. In fact, they may be even MORE plagued by old problems, given the absence of familiar home supports coupled with more and new stresses of college. The Senioritis bravado of high school obscured all of the pitfalls in leaving home. So they are unprepared for the real turmoil accompanying their greatest upheaval in their young lives. They, and we, are blindsided when hopeful expectations are dashed by grimy realities. And it is a stunningly common occurrence.

In fact, an alarmingly high 35 percent of freshmen drop out of college in their first year.* Parent guidance for coping with our freshmen's struggles is not readily available, nor is the advice and solidarity we used to rely on from our high school parenting tribes. Compounding isolation is parental shame about having a "defective" teen because all you hear about is how others' freshmen are flourishing. (Some practically flaunt it like a parental prowess award!)

So, how should we position ourselves to support our freshmen through their turmoil? A good guiding principle is fear is empowered when bowed to, disabled when defied.

Our role, quite simply, is to help them triumph over their fear, with minimal intervention to optimize growth and autonomy.

Think instructor of a trapeze novice. Your student has made the climb to the top of the launching tower and feels shaken, looking down as well as across the vast net to the other side. Your task is to discourage him from climbing back down and instead to embolden him to swing across the great divide to independence. Here are seven guidelines to inform your approach:

1. Adopt a calm tone and a reassuring faith in their resources. Of course you're anxious! There's nothing worse than worrying helplessly about your child, especially from afar. But don't let your anxiety drive your words and actions, or else you'll undermine your freshman's self-confidence and heighten her anxiety. (Parental anxiety is virulently contagious!) Even if you don't feel it, adopt a low-key, detached posture of "you're OK, you've got plenty of resources inside and around you to draw on." Do you remember when your child was struggling through the crawler-to-toddler transition and did a complete face-plant on the living room floor? Your facial expression ABOUT her fall defined HOW she reacted TO her fall. If you showed alarm, your toddler instantly launched into ear-splitting wails and clamored to be picked up. If you shrugged indifferently, she scrambled up and resumed her lurching, wobbling walk. Your calm faith in your freshman's resilience promotes her own faith in herself, which then helps her draw on her own coping resources.

2. Normalize your freshman's distress: Everyone entering unfamiliar social settings worries about fitting in. Magnify that a hundred fold for exquisitely self-conscious teens replacing their lifetime of knowns for foreign disorienting unknowns. Except for those rare charismatic extroverts, most of us rely on the "fake it til you make it" ploy. Educate your freshman about that social truth; no matter how happy his classmates may APPEAR, most of them secretly, feel insecure right now, too. And in turn, probably your freshman APPEARS cool and fine to everyone else TOO, no matter how uncertain he's really feeling.

3. Facilitate, don't take over: Honor her self-sufficiency by not offering advice unless she requests it. (Or ask if she would welcome your ideas before voicing them.) Then, prompt her with questions about helpful resources, but don't pursue the solutions for her. E.g., "What about the Resident Advisor? She's probably run into this problem before..." "Your sister had an issue like this; maybe you could check in with her?" "What advice would you give your best friend if she called you with this issue?"

4. Break down the daunting chasm of time and distance into more bearable segments. Swing out to him "trapezes" to grab onto that break the sprawling future into more tolerable units of time. (E.g. "It's just four weeks until Columbus Day weekend -- then another five weeks until Thanksgiving, then another four weeks until Winter Break..." "Hey, you're not stuck there forever. If you find you still hate it in January, you can always look into transferring.") Send brightening texts, tweets, emails with funny "stumbled upon" and you-tube videos, as well as care packages with comfort foods. Offer a visit in the near future. (And make a pain in the pitoot out of yourself, nagging, invading privacy and interrogating (you know how... just be normal!), so he stops sentimentalizing home life!).

5. Respect your freshman's privacy and autonomy, but take over if you must. If your freshman refuses to take actions that are essential to her well-being, you just have to take matters into your own hands. Call the Dean of Students, the Dorm Advisor, the Counseling Office, the Campus Police, an academic advisor -- whomever the appropriate authority would be for the problem at hand. If psychologically grave or tricky, consult with a professional for strategy on your intervention. If you need the counsel of a family member or friend, be selective and ask that the conversation be held in the strictest confidence. As a respectful courtesy to your freshman, explain ahead of time how, regretfully, her situation has degraded to the point that you must act to care for her since she's not feeling up to it herself.

6. Be compassionate, not judgmental, with yourself. Parents reflexively condemn themselves when their kids trip up. But the fact is, we have far less control and power than we like to think we do. This freshman flight into adulthood has steep altitude and stomach-roiling turbulence. But such is the process of self-growth. We all flourish the most when beset by the greatest upheaval. Consider your own past. Did you not have times of misery, darkness, irresponsibility, breath-taking stupidity? And how did you come out of that? Are the depths of your self-knowledge and resilience not enhanced as a result? So when you find yourself harshly criticizing yourself for ways you imagine you failed as a parent, ask yourself: "Did I try my level best to parent my child as well as I could, given the context and resources I had?" Usually the honest answer is "all considered, YES." And we just can't ask any more of ourselves than that.

7. Fling yourself out of your isolation and into open-hearted connection with others in the same boat:
Host an assembly line party to pack potluck treats to mail off to your freshmen. Start a seasonal meet-up at a local restaurant for fellow parents to reunite. Forge new excuses to gather with your parental tribes; game nights, progressive dinner parties, book groups, co-volunteering, weekend touring -- whatever. Just don't permit yourself to sink into isolation. When we shut ourselves off to each other, we promote estrangement not only from others, but, far worse, from ourselves. Follow wise and renowned speaker and researcher Brene Brown's urgings: When we open-heartedly share our truths of vulnerability, we enable others to open up authentically to us, and to themselves. This is how we grow new bonds of wholehearted compassion. This is what heals and grows us all.

*According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, drop out rates are inversely related to admission selectivity of colleges/universities.