It’s your daughter’s high school graduation. In a cap and gown, she stands beside a podium and proudly takes her diploma, beaming over the fact that she is moving on to a new, exciting phase of life.
Eyes tearing up and many disparate thoughts whirling through your head, you snap her picture.
Here, I would like to insert a different thought – a question you need to ask yourself: “What do I want my child to be like four years from now, when she is graduating from college?”
What you can do as a parent
Now is the time to take a mental snapshot of what you envision for your child when he or she completes that bachelor’s degree. And this summer is the time to develop a plan regarding how you, as a parent, will support your child as he or she emerges into young adulthood.
As a mother of two college students and a psychiatrist who has provided clinical care to college students for the last 20 years, I have a unique perspective.
As a mother, I expect my children to go through college with success, but as a psychiatrist, I have seen how easily young adults can be derailed by academic problems, mental health issues and even bad luck. In fact, only 59% of college graduates starting in 2006 took six years or less to graduate from a four-year program.
Your strategy as a parent can make a big difference in the outcome of the college years. Based on past research and my experience, here are some suggestions:
Be there – When children move toward autonomy, they need some parental guidance, a navigation system of sorts. Parents should tell their children when they are heading in the wrong direction and announce, “Take the next U-turn.”
But don’t be there too much. Too much monitoring, such as doing her homework or checking every test grade, is not good for your child. It could result in your child being less autonomous and less successful in college.
Avoid “free range parenting” – the opposite extreme of “helicopter parenting.” Free range parenting is even more hazardous to your undergraduate child. I have seen parents look the other way as their children continue to fail academically or get deeper into drugs.
Like so many things in life, your best bet is the middle ground.
Here is a simple checklist
- Check your child’s grades at the end of every semester:
I am not saying be a tiger mom or dad, demanding nothing short of “A"s from your child. Rather, use the end of semester grades to check how your child is progressing academically and emotionally, and encourage him or her to get help if needed.
Your child can let you see the grades online by sharing a password or sending a screen shot. Don’t rely on their verbal report. I have seen many students go through multiple semesters of doing poorly, but hiding their problems, even lying to their parents, out of shame or embarrassment.
Once you know there is a problem, you can help your child assess the cause, which could include a general lack of maturity, poor high school preparation, poor study skills, a learning disability or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression or anxiety, or excessive drug use. Helpful campus resources include academic advising, tutoring services and the counseling center.
- Check your child’s social life:
You can’t view a social report card, but you can ask about friendships and dating experiences. Encourage your child to join at least one campus club, activity, religious group or intramural sport.
Freshman year can be a particularly lonely time for some students. A 2014 survey of freshmen showed that compared with 1987, they are spending far less time in face-to-face contact with other students and more time on social media.
In 1987, 37.9% of freshmen socialized at least 16 hours per week with friends. In 2014, only 18% of freshmen spent at least 16 hours per week socializing face-to-face with friends; 27.2% spent at least six hours per week on online social networks, up from 18.9% in 2007.
I have seen homesick freshmen who want to leave school benefit from increased parent visits or phone contacts. Most students eventually find their social group, but parents can be crucial to that initial adjustment.
- Check your child’s mental health:
Mental health issues have increased to record highs on college campuses. In 2014, 14.3% of college students reported being diagnosed with anxiety and 12.1% with depression at some point in the previous year – an increase from 10.5% of students who reported anxiety and 10.1% with depression in 2009.
If your child seems to be depressed or stressed, encourage her to seek an evaluation at the college campus counseling center. If she is having suicidal thoughts – and 11% college students do in a year – take this very seriously. Encourage an assessment as soon as possible.
This can make a difference
With the right help, students can make remarkable progress and have a successful college experience.
- Check your child’s marijuana and alcohol use:
I have a strong belief about marijuana in the college student: parents should just say no. This is a tough stance to take, given that 36% of college students surveyed in 2013 reported using marijuana at least once in the previous year, with 5% of these students using it on a near daily basis.
Today’s marijuana has tetrahydocannabinol (the chemical responsible for marijuana’s effects) levels three times higher than a few decades ago, greatly increasing the risk of a first psychotic episode. I have seen several students over the years become psychotic after heavy marijuana use, necessitating hospitalization.
Far more common and just as damaging, marijuana has negative effects on memory, motivation and concentration. College students who smoke marijuana at least every other day have a much higher rate of dropping out of school than those who don’t use marijuana.
Alcohol abuse can also have a variety of negative consequences for college students. In 2013, 76% of college students reported consuming alcohol at least once in the previous year. During the same period, 58% of students had been drunk at least one time. This increases their chance of injury or sexual assault.
If you believe your child has a drug or alcohol problem, encourage early and aggressive treatment. I have seen parents turn their children’s lives around by staying involved.
As a parent, you continue to have an important role in creating your child’s college senior portrait. By taking a middle-of-the-road approach throughout the college years, keeping your parent checklist in mind, you will see your child blossom into the wonderful, mature adult you have always envisioned.
And on the next graduation day, it is most likely you will see an ethical, responsible, self-sufficient individual walking to receive his or her certificate.