Letting go as children head off to college for the first time

Sending your child off to college for the first time isn’t easy. But it can be especially tough on “helicopter parents,” those who tend to hover over their children and can have a hard time letting go.

Co-author of
Co-author of “Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years,” Coburn offers advice on sending your child off to college for the first time.

But not to worry, says an expert on the freshman transition at Washington University in St. Louis. Even helicopter parents can make a successful break.

“I don’t know who coined the term ‘helicopter parents,'” says Karen Levin Coburn, assistant vice chancellor for students and dean for the freshman transition at Washington University in St. Louis. “But I do know we are seeing a generation of parents who have been more involved in every step of their child’s development.”

There are several theories about why that has happened, says Coburn, co-author of the acclaimed book “Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years,” which, in its fourth edition, has sold more than 300,000 copies.

“Some say it’s the baby boom parents who are just used to being in charge and controlling their environment,” she says. “Also, there are more families who are having children at a later age and we are seeing more students who come from small families of one or two children. That can lead to an increased focus on the child.

“There is also increased anxiety about ‘doing it right.’ Parents want their children to get into the most selective colleges and many start worrying about this as early as the preschool years. They are concerned about their children taking the right classes in elementary through high school and concerned that they get good grades and develop resumes of the perfect combination of extracurricular activities and summer internships. A lot of these parents have really helped to shape their kid’s experiences in very hands on ways.”

Likewise, says Coburn, we are seeing a generation of students who seem to be more connected to their parents, who rely on them for advice and who actually listen to them and aren’t rebelling against them in the same ways their parents may have rebelled in their teens.

‘Enjoy the pleasures of technology’

All of these things, coupled with the increase in technology, are leading parents and children to be closer than ever before, Coburn says. “We are now seeing kids who have been carrying their cell phones all through high school. They have never really been out of touch with their parents — they are always accessible,” she says.

“That combination can make heading off to college more challenging and paradoxically it can make it less of separation, since parents and students are so used to keeping in touch.”

Coburn’s advice? “I tell helicopter parents the same thing I tell other parents — recognize that this is a big transition but have faith in your parenting. Your kids know the values you have instilled in them and they will be taking those values with them to college,” she says.

“Enjoy the pleasures of technology. Use cell phones and Instant Messaging, but don’t overdo it. Let your child take the lead in setting communication patterns, and don’t expect answers to all of your e-mails,” Coburn says.

“Also, learn about the services your child’s college has to offer. Then when you get those inevitable phone calls about a disappointing grade, a roommate conflict or doubts about a major, you can act as a coach, not a rescuer. You can encourage your daughter or son to talk to the professor or resident advisor, to go to a tutoring center or counseling service. Often the best support parents can give their college-age children is to encourage them to take charge of their own college experience.”

‘A great gift’

“Helicopter parents want their kids to grow to be independent and successful,” says Coburn. “If the parents can step back and really think about what they value in an adult they will realize that the ability to solve problems is one of the key traits that we look for in highly functioning adults. Parents need to keep that in mind. Any parent hates to see their kids have a hard time and suffer, but if they can help them learn to solve problems — rather than taking care of everything for them — they are giving them a great gift.”

Karen Coburn
Karen Levin Coburn

Coburn says nervous parents can also be reassured by the current trend for colleges and universities to have a changed attitude in how they relate to parents.

“An increasing number of institutions see parents as partners,” says Coburn. “We realize that students are going to be attached to their parents and we can involve the parents as partners in helping the students be more successful.”

Parents need to realize they aren’t going to be shut out at the door the way maybe their parents might have been, says Coburn, whose yearly orientation session for parents of new freshmen attracts a standing-room-only crowd of more than 1,000.

“I certainly see at Washington University the way we are paying so much attention to the transition from high school to college,” she says. “I think freshmen at this university are getting much more attention than they ever have. We are very aware of what a crucial year this is for students. The very fact that part of my job title is dean for freshman transition speaks volumes.

“We have senior faculty teaching freshmen, we have residential colleges with faculty families in residence and we have advisors and peer advisors for freshmen,” Coburn says. “I like to think we are out in front of the curve, but this increased attention to undergraduates is a growing trend nationwide.

“I think that’s a positive thing for students. It also reassures parents to realize that they aren’t just dropping their kids off to completely fend for themselves when they bring them to school.”