08/08/2012 05:44 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2012

Families Continue to Matter More Than You Think

Renegotiating relationships between parents and college students

In mere days or weeks, most colleges and universities will launch into a new academic year. As the senior administrator of my university campus, I take great pleasure in meeting and greeting our incoming freshman and their families. Owing to my background as a family research scientist and family therapist, I know that a healthy and successful transition to college is in large part a family affair, and so a great number of our welcoming efforts are directed at both students and their parents. University faculty and staff across the country would be well-served by adopting this perspective, especially as it pertains to the first year college experience.

Despite the general public's belief that friends are the most important influence on children and teenagers, studies continue to indicate that family members have the greatest bearing on most major life issues. While one's peers do play an increasingly important role over time, the family environment remains the first and most significant social context in which youth grow and develop. The prominent impact of families can and does extend into the college years, especially when parents and their sons and daughters recognize the need to renegotiate how they interact with one another.

Employing the latest research findings on young adults and their families, I fashion my Orientation Day welcoming speech as an invitation for college students and their parents to discuss how their relationships inevitably will be transformed as the result of this major life transition. And while this is developmentally appropriate, I note that such change is much easier said than done. Up to this point in time, most parents have been used to performing the role of "supervisor" of their sons and daughters. This has involved countless hours of checking on homework, monitoring their whereabouts and activities with friends, and so on. In the midst of complying with their parents' demands and desires, young people simultaneously have been building individual identities for themselves that unsurprisingly includes the push for more and more privacy. As a result, well-functioning families throughout the high school years must balance the need for members to remain connected with the need for members to experience a sense of independence.

However, the successful transition to college requires mothers and fathers to reshape their efforts into a role more akin to "coach," in large part because university life comes with the expectation that students are responsible for themselves. Whereas supervisors have active and direct oversight over the people they manage, coaches are found on the sidelines offering advice during timeouts and other breaks in the action. The parents of college students can and should be advised that their most appreciated involvement will come from the contacts they have during the "in between" times: a test message that can be replied to after class, a care package during final exams, or dinner at a favorite restaurant over break.

In turn, freshman need to understand that their parents will be successful in becoming more "coach like" only to the extent that they experience their sons and daughter more actively sharing information about themselves and their life situations. Some "helicopter parents" are in fact over-involved in the lives of their children, and should learn to let go. However, other parents find themselves feeling as if they need to do a "search and rescue mission" because their college students have been maintaining "radio silence" for days or weeks. Well-functioning families during the college years must find a relative balance between the need to maintain family contact and the need for students to display self-reliance and self-determination.

Many universities have adopted very specific first year experience programs that seek to increase retention efforts, academic performance, and overall satisfaction with their college experience. These same institutions of higher learning and their attendant first year programs would do well to pay close attention to transitional issues as they unfold for both incoming college students and their parents. Families do matter a great deal when it comes to making a successful adjustment to campus life.