08/11/2014 07:52 am ET Updated Oct 11, 2014

College Parents: How to Say the Long Goodbye

Students come to the college experience through a variety of doors. Nearly half of them begin at two-year institutions. Millions more do not fall into the traditional pool of 18-22 year old first-time freshman. Large numbers also earn degrees online or in some blended learning format. But when most Americans think about students entering college the image that they conjure up is of some magical moment frozen in time in their minds during freshman move in day.

In fact, a great deal of preparation goes into the long goodbye before the new students arrive on campus. For traditional first time freshmen, the saga begins days after high school graduation. The students -- and typically their parents -- have already raided the new college bookstore for t-shirts, sweatshirts and bumper stickers, established their bragging rights, and figured out how to combine grants and loans with savings to make it happen. By July, they have moved on to Bed Bath & Beyond, the computer and office supplies stores, and various retail clothing outlets to assemble more "stuff" than can fit comfortably into a family's car.

As August arrives, the excitement and a growing sense of nostalgia build. The prospective freshman longs for last moments with high school friends while parents and siblings plan out their remaining time together. The college mailed paperwork to be completed by the student, and the student has correspondingly selected classes, become aware of opportunities within residential life, and communicated with new roommates. It's time to head off to college.

What do parents do now?

The smart ones took two additional steps to prepare their children.

First, these parents have a discussion with their college-bound son or daughter about the values important to their family. As the high school graduate is pushed out of the nest to land as an inexperienced adult in a brave new world governed by freshmen peer pressure, having a set of black and white parameters fresh in their mind can be invaluable. Remembering when and how to say "no" opens freshmen to a world of fresh choices. Parents should have "the talk" -- not about "birds and bees" since this discussion should have occurred years earlier -- but about why you are sacrificing to send them to college, what it means, and what you expect of and for them.

And second -- and at the opposite end of the spectrum -- parents should teach student the basics -- how to do the laundry, cook, sew, be aware of basic table manners, and communicate without using the word "like" verbally more than once in a paragraph. These are survival skills that make the daily grind of college easier.

Next comes the hardest part of the long goodbye.

When families arrive at move in day, there is a subtext to the college's drop-off invitation. For all of the welcoming language, hospitality, and good cheer displayed by college staff, the timeline of events provides a clue to the overall message. When distilled, the message from the college reads: "Welcome, make certain that your child is comfortable, stay for lunch, and then leave."

While the message is direct and blunt, it's important for parents to understand that the rules have changed.

The worst offenders come equipped as "helicopter parents" to hover close to their children for four years. It is a growing problem, especially among parents who fail to comprehend that college forces a child to grow up. To these parents, you know who you are. Student life professionals hold sessions annually to train others how to handle you.

The best parents are those who understand, however, that the nature of their assistance changed the moment that their child arrived on campus. It's not really a money question since resources differ widely among families. Rather, the most helpful parents are those who offer encouragement, keep in regular contact, offer advice, and refuse to turn their child's cell phone into an adult umbilical cord with unlimited minutes.

What can parents do to stay connected to their freshman?

First, recognize that a relationship with an almost adult child requires adult behavior by all parties, including you. Your freshman will make mistakes and a few of them may be serious over four years. But you can't fix their problems for them. And remember, forty years forward these same youngsters will be deciding what nursing home best suits you. Learn to play by the new rules of engagement quickly. You'll be surprised at how a relationship can grow under different rules.

Second, separate your interest in your child from your support for the college. Consider joining the parents association, particularly if the college is astute enough to focus the parents groups on outcomes like internships, externships, employment after graduation, and alumni and parent support. Parents care deeply that their child graduates with skills -- broad and technical -- that lead to a productive life. Colleges can use your help to ensure it.

And finally, remember to live in the moment. Colleges provide numerous opportunities for parents to enjoy collegiate life, often richer and fuller than when some of them were students. Take advantage of your four-year investment. It can be a bit like following your favorite sports team. While you may not be the player batting clean up as a parent, you paid for the tickets and the hot dogs. Who better to root for the players to win the game?

You'll be happy that you did at graduation.