Constant contact between college students and parents could hinder development

Whether your child is going away to college this fall across town or across the country, there are more ways to keep in touch than ever before. With today’s ubiquitous cell phones and access to Twitter, Facebook and texting, it may seem as though your child has never left the house. For students, there is the ever-present possibility of an available parent at the end of a cordless tether, which has the potential to hinder the letting go process, claims an expert on the college transition at Washington University in St. Louis.

Karen Coburn

Dubbed “digital natives” by the media, students entering college this fall have grown up being completely connected, says Karen Levin Coburn, senior consultant in residence at Washington University in St. Louis and co-author of the best selling book, “Letting Go: A Parents” Guide to Understanding the College Years,” recently released in an updated fifth edition.

When the last edition was published in 2003, instant messaging was still a novelty. Now with the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, Skype and texting, it’s old news.

This technology adds a whole new dimension to the process of letting go — both challenges and opportunities, says Coburn, a national expert on the freshman transition. “Today’s parents have been more involved in their children’s lives than generations of the past, and many are justly proud of the fact that their teenage children are closer to them than they had been to their own parents,” she says.

But as their children head off to college, it’s time to revisit the questions: “How close?” and “How involved?”

While keeping in touch with family is reassuring to students and parents alike, constant contact may hinder a student’s development in this new environment, warns Coburn. “It’s important for parents to support their child’s growing independence and to acknowledge the transition their child is making from high school to college. Just because their son or daughter is still accessible via technology, does not mean things are the same as when they were in high school.”

Coburn suggests that parents take some time to reflect on the changing nature of the relationship with their college-age child to ask themselves how they can foster and support this emerging adult’s ability to take charge of solving his or her own dilemmas.

“With today’s fast pace and easy access, it’s tempting for parents to keep in constant touch, to check in the way they did when their children were in high school, to try to protect them from all disappointment, hurt or failure,” Coburn says. “However to do so is to deprive them of developing a sense of confidence and competence and of taking ownership of their college experience. For instance, when it comes to struggles with the content of a particular course or dealing with a messy roommate, it’s most helpful if parents listen and empathize — and then guide the student to talk to the professor or an advisor or residence hall counselor rather than jumping in and trying to rescue from afar.”

There are no specific guidelines for the appropriate frequency of calls or electronic messages, Coburn says. “Casual calls or texts of the ‘I just came out of a great lecture’ or ‘We won the football game’ variety can be welcome interruptions in a parent’s day,” she says. “Likewise, students usually appreciate hearing snippets of news from home, though parents shouldn’t expect to get replies to every message.”

While the technology is new, the goals of Letting Go remain the same, says Coburn. “When we wrote the first edition twenty-one years ago, we aimed to give parents an inside view of college life and the ways students develop over the four years,” she says. “We focused on the changing relationship between parents and their college age children. That’s still the case, but the ways parents and students communicate, and the context for making the transition, are vastly different.”