Coping with change

Introduction

A child moving out of the family home and into student accommodation will be a life-changing event for most parents. No matter how well this process is organised, there is the likelihood that this experience will carry a complex range of emotions from joy and pride through to sadness and apprehension. This is entirely normal.

What follows is an attempt to explain, in very general terms, the processes and developments that are taking place and to give some tips on how to survive the experience. That said, everyone’s experience will be different. 

 

1) What may students be experiencing?

Change and Development

Coming to university and experiencing independent living for perhaps the first time offers young people a unique three to four-year period to gradually grow away from dependency and gradually grow towards self-reliance.

Tasks

Some students may expect this to be a smooth and unhindered process, but for most it will present individuals with ‘tasks’ that need to be experienced and accomplished. These will include:

  • separation and independence from parents
  • development of personal beliefs and attitudes
  • developing capacities for lasting relationships
  • establishing a sexual identity
  • developing an individual commitment to work/study

The experience of these tasks is to be expected, but all students will develop at individual rates and at different levels of complexity.

2) What may you experience?

The sheer complexity and range of emotions that emerge may feel quite confusing. This again is quite normal.

Celebration

You could experience a rush of pride and happiness at the successes of your child. You may also feel proud about the help and guidance that you have given to help your child achieve their place at university.

If this is your last child or only child leaving home, it could be that, subconsciously, you are thinking: maybe we can have our life back again!

Bereavement

You may feel a deep sense of loss, saying goodbye to your ‘child’ and knowing that they are growing into adulthood and are likely never to be as dependent on you again. This could be a particularly intense feeling, if this is the last or your only child leaving home. It may feel like the end of an era and raise concerns about a new phase in your life.

Concern about the future

How is university going to change my relationship with my child?

How am I going to manage this new stage in our relationship?

How many times should I contact my child in a week?

Should I wait for them to contact me?

What’s my role in their life now?

These are all normal questions each having different answers according to the nature of the relationship with your child.

Cycle of change

The cycle of feelings that you may experience at this time of change and transition could be described as follows:

It could be that you experience these feelings all at the same time. At first, it may feel quite unsettling, but as time goes on and both you and your child settle into the new circumstances, it is usual that the experience of these feelings becomes less intense.

Parents' survival guide

Keep in touch with your emotions and communicate them – talk with your partner, friends and when it feels appropriate, your child.

Anticipate that this is going to be a stressful period and look after yourself well - get enough sleep, eat good meals, take exercise.

Remember that you have played a hugely important role in helping your child reach this stage; yes, you may be saying goodbye, but feel proud about the support you have given.

Remember your child and treasure those memories, but also give thought to how you might channel the time and energy that was given over to bringing up your child.

In time, think about how you might want to reformulate your relationship with your ‘child’ as they grow older and take more responsibility.

What support can I still offer?

Yes, your relationship will undoubtedly change, but remember that the progress towards adulthood is a gradual process and you still have a role to play. A part of your role is, of course, to allow the separation to take place in a way that feels manageable and appropriate.

What can I do?

  1. Stay in touch – independence will pull students in directions of their choosing, but news of home and your care will remain important to them
  2. Listen when asked. Your child may quite often want the assurance that they are still important to you
  3. Give them the space to tackle their own problems - particularly financial, accommodation and personal issues
  4. Manage problems effectively. Don’t keep problems (such as illness, divorce) from your child. Try and show that you are managing the difficulty, but at the same time keeping them informed. Your child will worry much more if they feel that they are being excluded from information
  5. Don’t jump in immediately if you receive sad news. It is very common for students to start feeling homesick after the initial honeymoon period. They may call you as you represent security, what they know - home. Often they may emphasise the negative, leading you to worry unnecessarily over their welfare. If you can, resist calling their tutor/student services; allow some time to pass – usually the difficulty changes and/or loses its intensity. Be a listening ear and allow your child to work out their own actions and solutions.
  6. When serious problems occur, again try to be a listening ear and try to gauge your child’s awareness of services available at the university. Most institutions have information on websites available via computer clusters in halls or departments. Maybe agree to talk again when your child has found out more. There are a range of support services to help students, but the emphasis is on helping students to help themselves. This approach works particularly well in helping students become autonomous. (Some useful websites are listed below.)
  7. Trust your student! Finally, this can be the most difficult thing for a parent to do. The nature of university is that students will be making decisions, without your input, on a daily basis. Trust them to make good decisions and/or learn from their mistakes. Remember you had to do this!

Good luck!

Acknowledgement: The advice in these pages was written by Nigel Humphrys, Head of the Student Counselling Service, University of Leeds