Working Through the Big Transition: How Parent-Student Relationships Change During College

[tran-zish-uh n]
1. Passage from one position or state to another
2. A time of change in location, relationships, roles, and/or activities.

Dear Parents,

All of us have gone through transitions in our lives. I have gone from being a daughter, college student, teacher, missionary, graduate student, counselor and Dean of Women. My life has taken me from Washington State, to Mexico, Spain, Argentina, South Carolina and Portland.

Each of us has a unique journey, but there is one thing that is certain for all of us – we will face change and transition in our lives. Today both you as parents and your son or daughter are facing a significant time of transition in your lives. You have been gradually been giving more authority and responsibility to your child throughout the high school years, but now you are facing the dramatic jump to college.

For some of you, this is a joyous occasion – to see your child step toward independence and personal development. There is a great sense of achievement to know that you have made it to this point, and joy in knowing that in the choice of Multnomah your son or daughter will have the opportunity to begin a journey of personal, intellectual and spiritual growth. You have talked for years about this far-off “someday” when they would one day leave the nest. And now it has come.

For others this is a time of grief. The loss of that part of the family that just can’t be replaced – perhaps brining energy and laughter, deep questions, hugs, and sometimes tears. You may even miss the open peanut butter jar on the counter or the shoes tossed in the middle of the living room floor. Your home will not be the same. There is a sense of loss for you and your family. Siblings may miss their older brother or sister to run to, borrow from, or argue with about what program they will watch on TV. It will be important for you to share your sense of loss with one another and comfort one another in the time of adjustment.

Most of you probably have a mixture of feelings. When the day is done, if you want to go out and celebrate or go home and cry – know that both are natural and both are okay. We all react differently to big changes.

What your son/daughter will face

Your children will also have a mixture of emotions – excitement, uncertainty, joy and insecurity.

Social Adjustment: Your son or daughter may be used to having it pretty quiet at home, with their own room and perhaps all the comforts of life. In college they will need to deal with:

  • Losing having their support system near, looking forward to meeting new friends and faculty who will be a part of their lives;
  • Anticipating having new freedom and responsibilities, fearing making errors or not knowing what to do;
  • Giving up privacy and comforts of home as they adjust to community bathrooms and waiting in line for a shower stall, less control over the cleanliness of their living space, different styles of music and sleep patterns, noise, eating at a specific time in the student commons or missing the meal;
  • Learning to work through personal conflict and live closely with people who are very different than they are: in personality, family background, church background, spiritual maturity, etc. Challenges they will face include seeking out a new church, new friends and support system, adjusting to living in a small space with someone they may or may not know well;
  • He/she will also have the opportunity to enjoy the fun of social activities and outings, and the sense of community that Multnomah can provide.

Need: Your listening skills if they want to talk, assurance of your love and belief in them, and encouragement to talk to an RA or RD if there is a concern they need help with

Academically: they may be proud to be stepping into the college atmosphere, terrified that they may not be able to keep up with the academic demands, or thinking that they are coming to summer camp and not realizing that serious study and discipline will be required. This is not like high school. In a few days they will be facing syllabus shock. Students need to plan ahead or wok will pile up horribly at mid-semester and the end of the year.

Need: Encouragement, not nagging.

Financially: Many will have very little stress, but most are likely to have more financial stress than they have experienced in the past. They will need to learn to manage what is likely to be a very tight budget and learn to make wise decisions. Some don’t have good spending habits – frugal or holes in pocket. Communicate with them well if you haven’t already as far as what you plan to do financially. Don’t promise more than you can do. Make sure that they understand requirements of grants, if they need to work right away or they may lose it. Discuss with them how many hours a week they will need to work. Discuss fears of not being able to finish or having exorbitant loans. Discuss vacations, missions trips, guests coming to visit, etc.

Need: Clear communication of expectations and budget concerns. Learning to plan.

Spiritually: We hope that there will also be times of deep spiritual growth and new insight as they study the Word of God. Students may struggle to maintain their own spiritual disciplines as they spend time in the Word in classes, chapels and assignments. They may begin to struggle as they evaluate their thoughts and beliefs accepted since childhood and wrestle with deep spiritual issues.

Need: Prayer for wisdom, peace, personal discipline and a deep sense of God’s presence and love.

Personally: Adjusting to a community and the expectations that are part of it. For some the standards will seem too lax; for others they will seem incredibly strict. Biblical standards never change. Institutional guidelines change from time to time. We desire to provide an atmosphere where each individual can mature in Christ if they choose to do so. They will be asked to honor one another in the community and to submit to authority. The issues that we will focus on will be issues of the heart – before God and others.

Need: Encouragement, not division. Let’s work together for the well being of your son or daughter. Please call us if you have concerns.

Your child’s support system on campus

  • Christian friends who will walk through the transition with them
  • RA – Resident Assistants, students who have been selected for their maturity and leadership skills who can help their dorm sections through times of adjustment and encourage positive social interaction and growth
  • RD – Resident Directors, staff members that live in the dorms and oversee the RAs and assist students with more difficult challenges
  • Most of all, the Lord has promised to be their strength, comfort, guide, compassion, and source of wisdom if they will learn to seek and depend upon Him

What will your son or daughter need from you?

  • Security: That mom and dad are there, stable. They are not responsible to keep you together or happy. Knowledge that you are there when they soar and when they nose dive in the sand. They will need the covering of your prayers.
  • Love: Be open to dealing with anything and everything, feelings, longings, and decisions. Help them to think through their decisions without controlling them.
  • Independence and Involvement: Their life makes an impact on you, but they are not your life. Ask questions about their activities, reach out and show that you care. Communication needs to be planned – it doesn’t just happen.

What they want and need

  • Care packages: stamps, cookies, send money to an RA to buy a birthday cake for a dorm section, or celebrate your son or daughter in a special way, newspaper clippings from home, or a favorite cartoon strip, simple little notes, etc.
  • Assurance that you are there for them and supportive of their good decisions. If in the process of growing they make unwise decisions, you won’t abandon or reject them.
  • Write often – mom, dad and siblings. Tell them what’s happening. Communicate your desires for breaks – plan ahead for the times you will be together.
  • Call unexpectedly – let them know that you are available if they need to talk. As they try to become more independent they may not call often or reach out as much – but they still need the support and appreciate hearing from you. Don’t assume that your son is independent and doesn’t want support. Fathers, especially, maintain and build that relationship with your son. An excellent gift to give them is a phone card as well.
  • A sense of respect – wanting to move more into an adult/adult relationship. Listen, and ask for their opinions. You are not losing a relationship – it is just changing. Let it grow deeper!

Personal Adjustment for Parents

  • If your family has been child-centered and you are facing an empty nest, you may need to focus new energy upon the marriage relationship
  • If your primary role or identity has been parenting, you may need to make some adjustments to find your identity in Christ and to invest time and energies in new ways as that role changes for you
  • As you launch your child into a new phase of life, there is often the tendency to look back and think of all the things you would have done differently. Parenting is a huge step of faith – once you let go of your child, it is too late to go back and try again. No one has done everything perfectly; parenting is not measured by absolute success or failure. We live in a fallen world, and we have all failed in some aspects. It is important to neither deny the failure, nor to be too hard on yourself. Busyness will keep people from facing the loss. Celebrate that which has been good, accept the errors, and go forward in peace and love. There is no point in regretting what you did or did not do in the past – focus on making today and the future the best it can be in your relationship with your son or daughter. Be real with your son or daughter: If you need to ask forgiveness for anything, do so! If there are special joys you remember, find a time to share those in a letter or phone call.

Two choices

  • Fear, repression, control, self-protection, distance/lack of reality
  • Grief/loss, pain, expression, emptiness – trust and submit to sovereignty and comfort of God, freedom/joy
  • Accept the fact that your son/daughter will be making significant decisions independently. Do not be offended or feel rejected if your child does not regularly ask for your advice. They want to learn to make their own decisions and to feel independent – to begin to step into adulthood. Some of you may be disappointed that you are no longer needed in the same way. You may fear that your child will make errors. They will. Be there to help and encourage them when they err – and let them learn and grow in the process.

Remember: God loves your children even more than you do. Put them back in His hands, but keep them close in heart and continue to reach out to them in love.


Kim Stave

Dean of Students
Director of Student Life
Multnomah University

September 20, 2017 | News