The transition from high school senior to college freshman is monumental.
Smitty Gaden of Covington, Louisiana knows this too well. In the past five years, she's survived the transition with all three of her children. She says it can feel a little like sending them into the lions' den, and says there are days she hates to hear the phone ring for fear of the news it might bring.
"Recently my son Boh, a college freshman, called to say he'd slept through his alarm, missed an exam, and would receive a '0' for the class," says Smitty. "I felt torn between wanting to wring his neck and wanting to climb through the phone line, put my arm around him, and tell him everything would be OK."
Smitty is hardly alone. Most parents of college freshmen will admit they hold their breath when the phone rings, especially at odd hours. That's why we talked to some college officials about how to best handle those dreaded calls, if or when they come.
We think you'll appreciate their sound, practical advice.
Phone Call No. 1
"I hate it here! I want to come home."
Bowling: Try to clarify what drives these feelings. Is there a roommate problem? Loneliness? Academic problems? Most students have trouble adjusting to college life at first. There's separation anxiety, culture shock, newfound freedom, all thrown at them at once. It can be overwhelming, and coming home may look like an easy out. At any rate, approach this subject long before your child packs up for school. Say, "A lot of students feel like they hate college at first. If you should start feeling that way, call me and we'll talk." If you do receive this call, encourage your child to hold steady. When he gets over the initial shock, he'll probably learn to love the school.
Dugger: As a parent you need to ask some questions. "Are you going to class? What are you doing after class? What are you doing at night? Have you made any friends?" If your child is sitting in his room every night instead of getting out and meeting other students, what he's feeling is loneliness and isolation. Often a student who was particularly popular and successful in high school gets to college and realizes they're just like everybody else. That has a big effect on how they feel about the place. The best thing parents can do is encourage their child to get out and make friends and talk to someone (their resident assistant, a counselor, a dean of students) about their needs and unhappiness.
Held: I agree. "I hate it here" is not an unusual response early in freshman year. It may be related to a boyfriend or girlfriend back home. If so, and the friend has gone off to school too, remind your child that coming home isn't going to solve anything. I suggest parents work a deal with their student. Bargain for time. One semester is best. That way even if she does come home she'll have credits to transfer and a semester under her belt. Encourage her to seek out her resident assistant (R.A.). R.A.'s are usually personally involved with the student. They'll start to build a relationship, and most students end up staying because of a relationship with another student, a counselor or a professor.
Phone Call No. 2
"It's too hard. I'm afraid I'll flunk out."
Bowling: These feelings are completely normal, and there's a lot that can be done to relieve them. Most colleges offer tutoring programs. Encourage your child to get in touch with those programs, and to approach the professor teaching the course. Have him take his notebook and say, "These are the notes I'm taking in your class. Can you see anything I'm missing?" or "This is the way I'm studying for your tests. Is there a better way I can be doing it?" Ask the prof if there's a study group he can hook up with. Basically he needs to ask the professor, "What can I do to make a better grade in your class?"
Held: Asking how to improve is music to a teacher's ears. Your child should not feel he's imposing on his professor. On the contrary, he's showing interest in the course and in doing betterand chances are his prof will have practical advice to help him improve. Again, a parent needs to ask some questions here. If you're receiving this call the first week of school, it's probably nothing more than shock. The professors have shared the requirements for the year, and it seems overwhelming. If you've received this call later in the year, after a few papers have been graded, she may actually not be doing well. Ask commonsense questions like, "Are you going to class? Are you turning in your assignments?" If the answer is "No," that's easy enough to fix. Suggest your child find a student who's doing well in the class, and make a deal with him for helpoffer to pay him or buy him a pizza. It may be as simple as knowing what this particular professor is looking for. The student who's doing well will know that.
Dugger: It might also be that your child has come to college and discovered newfound freedom. They're having so much fun and not putting the time and effort into the class they should. That's completely normal, but if it's the end of the semester and their GPA is suffering, it's time to get busy. Most students have their lowest GPA their first semester because they have so much adjusting to do. All the things already mentioned can helptutoring, talking to the facultybut also knowing that it's time to look for that balance between having a good time with your friends and giving the proper attention to your studies. If things are really bad, your child may want to drop the one class that's giving him the hardest time and concentrate on the others. There is a cutoff point (usually mid-semester) when he can drop a course without affecting his GPA. Then he can get a fresh start with it another time.
Phone Call No. 3
"I'm beginning to doubt my faith. I'm not so sure about anything any more."
Held: As scary as this can be for a parent to hear, it's usually very healthy. For the first time, your child is away from home and away from the way he was brought up worshiping. He's surrounded by people from different faith backgroundseven if they're all Christians. Classroom dialogues are encouraging him to dig deeper to realize what his faith really is. I'd caution parents not to take this personally. Don't say, "How can you do this to your mother and me? We raised you better than this." It's not a matter of questioning your faith. It's about finding his own personal faith.
Dugger: Parents should show spiritual compassion. Definitely don't take it personally or see it as something you failed to do. Between the ages of 18 and 24, most people begin searching. Encourage your child to talk to a campus chaplain, Bible teacher, or to come home and talk to your family minister about his doubts and questions. Believe me, it's nothing they haven't heard before. Remember, it's not about whether he believes. It's about what he believes and why.
Webb: Let your child know it's OK and at times necessary to experience doubt in order to have a deep personal faith of her own. Remind her that you love her and are praying for her. Don't chastise her for questioning her faith. In the midst of it, encourage her to keep going to church and reading her Bible. Encourage her to share her doubts with God. Most of the time your child's faith will emerge stronger for having asked these questions.
Phone Call No. 4
"I've maxed out several credit cards, and now they're demanding payment!"
Held: The first thing you want to do is make sure the credit card has been destroyed so no more debt will be incurred. Then, different parents have different approaches. If you're financially able, I'd recommend paying off the debt yourself and having the child repay you. It's important that she bear the responsibility for what she's done, but you don't want her dragged down with an impossible debtor legal problemseither. Then you may want to look at selling off some of the things she's charged, maybe in a garage sale, and use that money to start paying off the debt. Or maybe give them to charity. That way, she's not rewarded by keeping all her purchases.
Dugger: The first response for most parents would be to bail their child out. But depending on the situation, I'd look at making the child take as much responsibility as possible. Be supportive and forgiving, then look at making some choices. Say, "You're making a car payment and paying car insurance. Do you think you ought to sell your car and make the credit card payment instead?"
Bowling: I'd say right away, "Send me all the cards except one, which is only to be used in an emergency." Definitely give the sense that this is something that can be worked out, but it will take time and a commitment on your part. This is another topic I'd discuss long before your child leaves for college. Everyone will be offering him credit cards, and he needs to be prepared to make wise choices. You don't want him starting independent life mired in debt.
Phone Call No. 5
"I've had sex, and I feel terrible about it."
Webb: Listen carefully to everything your child has to say. And as difficult as it may be, do your best not to respond in anger. Ask questions like, "What made you feel like you needed to do this?" If she's willing, advise her to seek a conversation with the chaplain or a personal counselor on campus. Definitely keep the lines of communication open for further discussion. Before ending the conversation, assure her of your love and forgiveness. And remind her that God loves her as well.
Held: This is one situation I'd encourage parents to handle face to face. The fact that you received this phone call at all shows that there is trust and open lines of communication. If at all possible, find a time when your child can come home to sit down and talk with you. Or, if you can drop everything, go to him or her. It could be that he's lonely and looking for personal affirmation and love. Show him that he can get that affirmation from youand from other Christians. The fact that your child feels terrible about having sex is a good thing. You don't want him to feel casual about it.
Dugger: Don't freak out. Don't take it personally. Don't focus on past mistakes. Do deal with why it happened, then look to the future. Ask, "Where do we go from here to make sure it doesn't happen again? How can you prevent being put in that situation again?"
Phone Call No. 6
"I've fallen in love with someone, and I want to drop out and get married."
Held: Here's where you need to know your own child. Is she the type who falls in love every other week? If you call her in the morning, will it be a whole other story? If not, this is another situation where I'd recommend a face-to-face conversation. This could be a horrible mistake that could wreck your child's life. I would try to bring her home to talk, or go to her yourself. And definitely direct her to some counseling.
Dugger: The first thing a parent may feel is anger, shock and disappointment. After you get over that, try to be supportive. Try to talk them into taking more time to plan their future, their life together. This isn't something they want to or need to rush into. Parents need to be supportive, even if their child insists on going through with it. We on campus will work with him to try to keep him in school. Or even if he takes some time off, we'll work to get him back on track as soon as possible.
Bowling: Try to buy some time for your child to look at the big picture. Say, "If this is the person for you, then he or she is not going to go away. You don't have to do everything right now. In the long run, you'll both need an education." Help your child see he doesn't want to make an impulsive decision. Don't put your foot down and declare an ultimatum, though. That could only serve to drive him away from you and toward the person he wants to marry. He needs to know he's loved and that you accept him and will be there for him no matter what he decides.
Phone Call No. 7
"I've been experimenting with alcohol/drugs, and I'm afraid I've got a problem with it."
Webb: If your child has called you, take it as a positive sign. He knows he has a problem and wants help. If at all possible, make a trip to the campus to assess the depth of the problem. What is he using? How often? How much? Is this a serious addiction or sporadic behavior problem? Is there a group of friends who are influencing him negatively? Look him in the eye and say, "We can work through this together with God's help." Seek counseling on campus, someone to help him through this and to hold him accountable. Don't leave until you know there is a plan in place to help him.
Dugger: Unfortunately most parents won't get this call until their child has gotten caught and is facing disciplinary action. Once the child admits there's a problem, there's a lot we can do. Most colleges have counseling facilities on campus to assist students in overcoming a drug or alcohol problem.
Held: You need to determine if the problem can be handled by a counselor here on campus, or if it warrants having the child come home and seek professional help. As a school, we want to help. When a student comes forward showing an honest desire for help, that's different than someone who got caught doing something wrong, when the approach is often radically different. We will work with her and help her in any way we can. If her schooling has to be interrupted, we'll do all we can to get her back on track when she's ready.
Editor's note: Olivet's Bowling has written a book that can also help your student prepare for college. Packin' Up and Headin' Out: Making the Most of Your College Adventure (Beacon Hill) includes all kinds of practical advice for making the transition from high school to college. You can order a copy at www.bhillkc.com, or by calling 1-800-648-1463 (ask for the bookstore).