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Home > Research Articles > Colleges Focus On Parents' Feelings

The Associated Press

Saturday, August 17, 2002

Colleges Focus On Parents' Feelings August 14, 2002

NEWARK, Del. (AP) -- With anxious faces, parents of incoming freshmen at University of Delaware listened closely as a psychologist braced them for big changes once they drop their children off at college.

"If you've been in the homework business, you are hereby fired," Jonathan Lewis said. "It's time for you to step back so they can step forward."

There were moist eyes all around. Jan Beck, a Florida businessman and father of freshman-to-be Jamie Beck, was in tears.

"It's been a very emotional time, a very strong sense of loss," Beck said later. But, he added, "It's nice to hear that this is normal."

Like many colleges and universities these days, Delaware recognizes parents of college freshmen need orientation, too, as they come to grips with an empty - or at least emptier - nest.

Parent orientation programs have become popular, and typically include some practical information on such topics as student privacy, school policies and services, and paying the college bill. But many schools also go all out addressing the psychological and emotional impact on the family when its freshman departs.

With catchy titles like "What Have You Done with My Child?" (University of North Carolina at Wilmington) and "May They Follow Your Path, and Not Your Footsteps" (Ohio Northern University) the programs aim to comfort parents, sometimes with lighthearted activities.

Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama sits parents down to watch a vintage episode of "The Andy Griffith Show" in which Opie, having raised three orphaned birds, faces the worry and loss of setting them free.

Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., gives parents a teddy bear to stuff, personalize and dress in a tiny T-shirt that reads: "Somebody at Seton Hall Loves Me."

Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., assembles a panel of parents to discuss their experiences, suggests parent-freshman topics of conversation before the big goodbye, and sends families an exam schedule while also noting peak stress times for first-year students.

At the University of Nebraska, students put on skits to help parents cope.

This summer's drama portrayed a freshman's nightmare that her old bedroom got turned into a hot tub, a father's fear of his daughter spending college nights carousing, and move-in day at the dorm with dad musing how his little girl grew into a beautiful, independent woman of 18.

Beck and his wife, Marla, from Boca Raton, Fla., were among many parents moved by Delaware's "Easing Transitions" session.

It was the emotional high point in a daylong program for parents while daughters and sons met advisers, took math placement tests and registered. (Delaware schedules its one-day orientation sessions from late June to late July to accommodate 3,200 newcomers to its classical red-brick campus).

For an intense 30 minutes, staff psychologist Lewis reeled off survival tips for parents:

On dorm move-in day "try to get to the car before you cry." "Students love getting stuff from you: letters and cards, brownies and cookies." "Figure out how you'll stay in touch" since "they don't write letters home; you may be lucky to get on their e-mail list." "This is their experience, not yours." Finally, he reminded them, "Though they're of us, they're not us." While colleges and universities have included parents in student-orientation events for decades, concern for their emotional needs has stepped up since publication in 1988 of the now classic, "Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Understanding the College Years."

Some schools even suggest during orientation that families pick up a copy - at the college bookstore, of course.

The book was inspired by a program begun in the early '80s at Washington University in St. Louis. Co-author Karen Levin Coburn helped create and now runs the two-day parents' orientation (students get five days).

Ultimately, focusing on parents benefits their children, Levin Coburn said: "If parents understand more about what to expect, they will be able to support their kids better. The students will thrive."

Copyright 2002 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.