how to support your college student

5 Ways to Support Your First-Year College Student

As the saying goes, “college is the best four years of your life.”

For many of us, they were the best years of our early adult lives. But, in remembering the good times, we may have also forgotten how lonely and isolating those first few weeks and months of college can feel, and how normal those feelings of sadness are for a first-year college student.

Whether you’ve experienced college yourself, sent an older child through school, or you’re a first-time college parent, today’s landscape makes the college experience unique to this generation of students. Attending college in the age of social media and in a post-Covid world has created a first-year experience unlike that which any of us have gone through before.

College is an exciting and sometimes scary time in your child’s life. The initial shock of leaving for college, whether entering new classes or moving to a new environment, can be overwhelming for incoming first-year students. Your support and encouragement are crucial to your child overcoming the initial stress of college life and getting to the good part. To ease this transition for everyone, we’re exploring five ways you can help and support your first-year college student.

1. Stop Calling and Texting Them…So Often.

While this advice seems counterintuitive, we suggest you give your child some space during those first few weeks and months of college. Regular communication can help your child maintain a sense of stability and safety, but when they rely on you to help them make small everyday decisions, they don’t build the necessary skills and confidence to make more consequential decisions for themselves.

Giving your child space to learn their way around campus, figure out what time meals are served, and navigate roommate issues on their own is important to building their independence as young adults.

According to Sandra Aamodt, neuroscientist and author of the book, “Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College,” the part of your child’s brain that helps them plan and organize their behavior is still developing at 17, 18, and 19 when they are entering college. During this time, they should be practicing those skills by making decisions on their own that you would previously help them make.

The problems and challenges students face at college are lessons in #adulting that your child should gradually begin to address on their own.

While you and your child explore this newfound independence, there are a few ways you can and should support your student.

  • Listen when they reach out to you (but don’t offer solutions until they ask).
  • Remind them that you’re proud of them and trust them to make these decisions independently.
  • Empathize with them. Share an example of a similar problem you faced and how you resolved it.
  • Answer when they call or text.
  • Remind them that mistakes are powerful tools for learning, growing, and building their resilience.

2. Expect Your Child to Struggle in the Beginning.

The early days of college are hard. Your child doesn’t know anyone; they’re away from home for the first time and are figuring out a new routine and schedule. These things are challenging on someone’s best day, let alone their first time living away from home.

Complicating those struggles are what your student sees on social media — friends and family sharing photos and videos of all the fun they are having back home. Your child might reach out to you and express negative emotions about their college experience, making you feel you need to rescue them. Feeling homesick is normal and expected for the first year of college, but saving your child by picking them up every weekend isn’t going to resolve that problem in the long term.

Instead, try encouraging your child to attend on-campus events and participate in campus-wide traditions. These activities can help your student feel more connected to the campus community and get out and meet new people.

3. Encourage Your Child to Explore Their Passions and Interests.

Your child trusts you and looks to you for advice on many things. When it comes time to choose a major, they will probably come to you for your thoughts. You may have some strong opinions on what you want your child to study, but influencing their choices could have unintended consequences, especially when choosing a career.

Choosing their own areas of study is important to their success during and after college. Enjoyment and passion increase one’s likelihood of success in college and a future career. Judy Harackiewicz, a professor of Psychology at University of Wisconsin, undertook a seven-year-long study that looked at college student interests. She found that interest in a subject led to more positive outcomes and better predicted future choices than grades alone (source).

Having an interest in their major helps your child overcome the difficulties and obstacles they might face, like writing that 10-page midterm paper or sitting for the final exam. Being passionate about a subject helps your child persevere through the more challenging parts of college coursework.

As hard as it sounds, supporting your child at college means setting aside your dreams and goals for your child and encouraging them to explore their passions. College is the time and place for your child to do the work of figuring out who they are and who they want to be.

4. Don’t be Afraid to Have Difficult Conversations.

Leaving the comforts of home means your child will make decisions on their own in a new environment. Remember when we mentioned that their brain isn’t fully developed yet? Impulse control is a large part of that later brain development. Your child may find themselves in new and different situations where they need to make decisions to keep themselves safe.

Avoiding difficult topics during conversations might make everyone feel more comfortable, but it’s doing your child a disservice. Talk about mental health, campus safety, consent, and all the adult concepts that will likely come up at college that may not have yet come up at home.

Challenge your child to look out for themselves and others, and to reach out to student affairs, campus safety, or a campus counselor when they feel uncomfortable or dysregulated.

University of Bridgeport has a robust support network and a community of staff, faculty, and other students who want to see your student thrive at college. If you ever feel like your child is experiencing more concerning feelings of depression and despair, campus counselors are available to help students in distress.

5. Send Them a Care Package.

Whether you live five minutes away or five hours away, sending a care package is a great way to lift the spirits of your homesick college student. Care packages filled with their favorite snacks, some functional items like toiletries, and perhaps a gift card for your child to treat themselves will be a welcome surprise. Adding a note requesting that your student share some of the goodies with other students can help your child foster new connections in their dorm and on campus.

The first year of college is filled with emotional ups and downs for you and your child. The first few weeks are the most difficult, but they’re also the most important for your child to make themselves feel at home and connected to their campus community.

We are here to help you every step of the way!

University of Bridgeport offers your student a vibrant and diverse community where they will build relationships that will last them a lifetime. To help you prepare for parenting a college-aged child, check out our parent resources.