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How to Support, Not Rescue, Your Kid in College

It used to be that when kids went to college they really said goodbye.

Not so much today.

Technology and closer ties with parents mean that students are just a call or text away.

"Letting go is a thing of the past," says Harlan Cohen, author of the new book, The Naked Roommate: For Parents Only (Sourcebooks, 2012). "Now it's about loosening the grip."

Just because it's easy to be in constant communication doesn't mean that's the best thing.

In an interview from his Chicago office, Cohen, who also wrote the popular student guide to college life, The Naked Roommate, says parents need to think carefully about this new landscape. "Parents have to create their own boundaries," he says. "Before distance and expensive phone calls created boundaries, but they are no longer."

While comforting to be in touch, being overly involved leaves college students with no room to learn to solve their own problems, he says.

"College is 90 percent amazing and 10 percent difficult. The trick is not letting the 10 percent take up 100 percent of your time."

Parents should not get caught up in the daily dramas. Use the 24-hour rule. Before getting wrapped up in fixing a situation, give it a day, and your child will likely have moved on, says Cohen.

Encourage students to work through the system, consult their resident assistant, or talk with their adviser. No wake-up calls to the dorm room. Really, it happens, he says. No intervening with professors.

Cohen suggests families discuss how often they plan to talk. If the expectation is to call once or twice a week, but your son is calling daily, it can put up a red flag.

"Before giving advice, ask if they want it," says Cohen. "Sometimes they just want to vent."

After the euphoria of the first few weeks of school, most freshmen will start to miss family and friends. "Instead of blaming yourself, child, or the institution, blame the college experience," says Cohen. The brochures never told students they would be uncomfortable, but about 61 percent of college students report feeling some sort of homesickness, he says.

Cohen cautions: "The cure for homesickness is not at home." Listen, help them struggle with the uncomfortable, and encourage them to find connections on campus. (If you suspect something more, such as depression, then don't hesitate to get in touch with campus professionals.)

Why is it so hard for parents to back off? College students often reach out and ask for things. "It's hard to say no because we love them," says Cohen. "Loving them means having to let them struggle."

After surviving the arduous admissions process, students and parents are anticipating a wonderful college experience. But it is often not perfect.

Families need to be patient and supportive, Cohen says. It can be hard when you are paying $50,000 a year in tuition to listen to less-than-rosy phone calls. He says the best way to be prepared is to know what your child will be facing in the first few months so you can be ready to help him or her.

Part of the solution to improving college completion may be paying attention to the critical role parents can play in helping students be successful.


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