7 College Tips for Parents: Adjusting to Parenting an Adult

by Stephanie Thurrott

Starting college isn’t just a transition for students. It’s an adjustment for parents as well! As your children take steps toward becoming adults and following their chosen career paths, your relationships will naturally evolve. It’s not always simple—but there are a lot of strategies and college tips for parents that can make it easier.

According to Jim Burns, Ph.D., executive director of Azusa Pacific University’s HomeWord Center for Youth and Family, it’s important for you to reinvent your relationship with your children as they move out of the house. Although it may feel as though your time as a guardian is ending, the bond you share is maturing (and has the opportunity to strengthen).

“For many parents, there is a sense of loss,” Burns said. “You invested two decades of your life pretty much being in control, but now they aren’t living in the home. And yet, your goal must be to help them become a responsible adult. It’s important for parents to remember that they will need to give their college students the ‘passport to adulthood.’ It’s difficult to do.”

We’re here to help. These seven college tips for parents can ease the transition for yourself and your child.

1. Encourage Independence

Burns said that the first thing parents should do is begin to encourage their children’s independence. If you’re still doing a few things for your student that they could feasibly do on their own, it’s a good idea to give them those responsibilities.

If your child comes to you with a problem, for example, try asking them, “What do you think you should do?” From there, you can provide guidance as they ultimately make the decision for themselves.

2. Try to Limit Unsolicited Advice

While definitely you want to give your child all the tips and pointers they need to succeed, providing too much unsolicited advice can be taken as a critique. Burns advised parents to remember that experience is usually a better teacher than advice.

If you feel you should offer advice, try framing it with language like, “Have you thought about . . .” rather than “You should . . .” This can help your advice feel like it’s coming from a caring place, not one of criticism!

3. Talk About How You Will Keep in Touch

It’s easy to check in when your child lives under your roof. But have you given thought to how you will communicate from a distance? When you both have a free moment, it’s a good idea to sit down and discuss whether you prefer phone calls, texts, or video chats—and how frequently you will check in with each other. Make it clear you want them to have their freedom but also want to keep abreast of their lives.

4. Clarify Communication About Grades

In the same vein, it’s wise to discuss how you’ll communicate about grades. At many high schools, parents have access to online portals where they can see scores for each of their child’s assignments, and they can easily contact teachers via phone and email. In college, only your child has access to this information.

Take the time to talk to your child about how to best share assignments and grades so you can help watch for problems without overstepping your role. Explain that you simply want to ensure they get the most out of their college experience and provide a level of academic support.

5. Don’t Expect Everything Will Go Smoothly

Your child very well may struggle in a class, disagree with a roommate, or have trouble making friends at some point. In these situations, do your best to offer support while allowing your child to advocate for themselves. There are obstacles every person needs to overcome in their lives, and they’ve got to do it themselves. (Of course, if your child is dealing with serious issues, you may want to intervene.)

6. Prepare to Reevaluate Your Relationship

The kid who comes home at Thanksgiving or Christmas may not be the same one you dropped off at the start of the semester. As your child becomes more mature and independent, the way you relate to each other will change. This is normal—and healthy!

Once students have lived on their own, even briefly, they may bristle at curfews and other house rules you choose to enforce. To avoid conflict, openly discuss what you expect will change, and what might not, when your child is home.

7. Trust Your Child (and Yourself)

You spent 18 years preparing your child to transition into adulthood—be confident that you’ve laid the groundwork for them to thrive! Rest assured you’ve taught them what they need to know.

If you’re interested in more detailed advice on parenting adult children, consider checking out Burns’s book and online video course, Doing Life with Your Adult Children: Keep Your Mouth Shut and the Welcome Mat Out. He also noted that there are a number of informative books centered around college tips for parents. In particular, Burns recommended How to Really Love Your Adult Child by Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell, M.D., Now That They Are Grown by Ronald Greer, and Walking on Eggshells by Jane Isay.

Looking for other helpful materials aimed at the parents of college students? Explore APU’s archive of informative articles for parents.