What Has Happened to My Student?

by Kathy Wurster, Assistant Director of Counseling

The college years can be an exciting, yet also challenging, time for your student. Just in the first semester, much has occurred. From the time they arrived on campus, students were expected to adjust to changes in their living environment, routine, and increased academic demands. Additionally, students have begun to make decisions on their own, accepting responsibility, and developing new relationships. It is likely that you have already started to notice some of these changes emerging. As students return home for Thanksgiving, and again in December at the conclusion of the first semester, they may bring a new perspective all their own, a sense of confidence, and an increased sense of independence.

You are probably excited, yet also nervous, about how these changes will look and will impact you and the dynamics of your family. It is helpful for you to expect these changes as a natural and inevitable part of your student’s development. By accepting that maturation is a process of ups and downs, curves and straight-aways much like a roller coaster, and by providing support and understanding rather than criticism and judgment, your student will be much more apt to thrive as he or she moves through this period.

Arthur Chickering developed a theory of student development that can help parents understand the seven basic tasks that most students face during the course of their college years. The first few dominate the first year of college experience, while the latter represent challenges faced later in young adulthood. To help you assist your student to navigate through this difficult time, a brief review of the first three vectors follows.

At this stage in their development, students are asking themselves, “Can I make it here?” They are attempting to develop competence, both intellectually and interpersonally. There may be indecision, insecurities, disappointments, and mistakes made that cause your student to second-guess his or her abilities and potential to succeed in college. You may have received phone calls or experienced weekend discussions in which such doubts were expressed. In time, with your reassurance and support, your student will begin to trust his or her abilities both in and outside the classroom, and in turn begin to feel more self-assured and effective.

Students are also trying to sort out how to handle their feelings. In college, students can become easily overwhelmed by feelings such as rejection, anger, fear, hurt, longing, boredom and tension. Many students long to feel accepted and part of a group, with a sense of fitting in. Disagreements with roommates or rejection by friends can be quite hurtful and distressing. Students must learn appropriate ways to manage emotions, a task much easier said than done. Ups and downs tend to be extreme, and are often experienced with break-ups or arguments with roommates and parents. As a parent, when you find yourself in the crossfire, it’s important to take a step back and remember that young adults have not yet quite mastered self-control to deal with criticism or disappointment when things don’t go their way, and giving them time to sort through their feelings is often more effective than forcing the issue in the moment.

Often students return home with a desire to focus their energy and time with friends rather than with family. This can be puzzling and even upsetting for parents, especially after their student has been away for several months. Actually this is normal and to be expected. They are in the process of developing their own support system independent of the support you have so diligently provided as parents. They are moving through autonomy toward interdependence on others. This means your student is striving to become more self-sufficient, take responsibility, and be less influenced by the opinions of others, while at the same time remaining connected with others. You will begin to experience a change in your relationship as your student learns to be less reliant on you, but still appreciate and turn to you when needed.

These first three developmental tasks have been highlighted to help you as parents obtain a glimpse of what changes to expect and how to make sense of them. It is helpful to try to accept that your student is not the same person as a few months ago, but rather is in the exciting process of establishing an independent identity. It will take patience, understanding, trust, and openness on your part to encourage this growth and to remember, your student isn’t the same child you tucked into bed years ago.

Source: Chickering, Arthur W. and Reisser, Linda., Education and Identity (2nd edition, 1993). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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