While leaving home for post-secondary education has long signalled the start of adulthood, many parents today continue to be extremely involved in their children's lives, including choosing their courses, attending their job interviews or even disputing their university grades.
Despite parents' best intentions, “helicopter parenting” limits opportunities for young adults to develop skills they need to become independent and resourceful, according to a study in the Journal of Adolescence. In addition, a study published in the journal of Developmental PsychologyOpens a new window in your browser. in 2018 found that when parents try to control too much for their children, it can affect a child's ability to manage his or her emotions and behaviours.
As children grow through various stages, a parent’s job changes, according to Cheryl Bradshaw, a registered psychotherapist in Waterdown, Ont. and author of The Resilience Workbook for Teens. “As they become more independent, our job as parents is to become more of a support and guide as opposed to director or enforcer,” she says.
If your child is heading off to post-secondary education, here are some tips on how you can be supportive and prepare them to face the world without the risk of overstepping.
1) Financial literacy is a key skill
Dr. Shimi Kang, a psychiatrist in Vancouver, B.C., says financial literacy is a key life skill for every age, especially college-aged youth.
“There will be no mastery without mistakes, so yes, financial mistakes will and must happen. It is best to make these early in life,” she says. “Ask your teen to create a budget for the week, month or year and offer to review it with them. Ask permission before giving advice, and then make suggestions.”
“It is likely mistakes will occur and the best approach is natural consequences versus bailing them out. Say ‘I guess you will have to skip that weekend trip or dinners out until you save up enough.’”
2) Easing the transition
“Prepare your child for moving out and starting post-secondary education by normalizing what they can expect in the early days of school,” says Bradshaw. Talk to them about common challenges, such as homesickness, being away from close friends and the pressure of exams and assignments.
It's important to emphasize the need for self-care and stress management. Introduce simple mindfulness techniques to help them cope with the stressors that come with being on their own.
An easy and effective place to start is to try meditative breathing. Identifying simple things for them to focus on, such as noticing how their breath moves in and out of their body, could offer some comfort when the pressure of school is overwhelming.
Another mindfulness exercise that stops the mind from being overwhelmed is focusing on the moment. Encourage your child to engage all their senses by taking a moment to notice 3 things that they see, 3 things that they hear and 3 things they can touch. Ask them to do it again, this time noticing 2 things, and then moving to 1 thing. This helps to reset their mind and refocus on the task at hand.
3) Let them know you’re always there
Dr. Kang says that while teens may look like adults, we can't expect them to behave like adults.
“We need to recognize that the human brain doesn't finish its maturation until the mid-20s. They still need parental guidance and support. But that is very different than helicoptering. We need to start loosening the reins and encouraging independence,” she says.
“On the other hand, we can't think we have done our job and be completely permissive or not involved. There is a high rate of mental health issues on campuses. We need to find that balance and stay in touch. Our kids need to know they can call on us, and they need to reach out and talk to someone if they are feeling overwhelmed or depressed.”
Dr. Kang says if parents aren't going to check in daily, their kids must commit to calling if there is a problem. Another option might be to set up a weekly Skype call to establish a regular communication routine.
“Having conversations like this signals a sense of trust,” she says. “When we believe our children are incapable, they are more likely to be incapable.”
“It is like learning to walk,” says Bradshaw. “You go from holding their hand to stepping back and encouraging. They may fall or make a mistake, but that is how they learn.”
“We have to deal with our own fears about it not always working out. That is how they learn and grow. Our role is to support and guide, not to swoop in and do it for them.”
“Try to encourage your kids to take those steps for themselves,” she adds. “Don't make doctor appointments for them. Don't do their banking for them. Encourage them and show them how to do it and when to do it, but don't do all the work for them.”
Leaving home for post-secondary education is a big step for parents and children. Supporting your child with tools to help them feel more confident will prepare them to be out on their own while keeping you connected.