The therapists at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) are happy to help you help your student navigate college at Pacific. We have provided information below to help you help your child through some common transitions, and we are also here to consult with you about the mental health of your child as needed. 

Understanding the Transition to College

Parents and families can be greatly influenced by the adjustments that students go through as they begin college. Included in this section is information to help you anticipate these changes and prevent potential problems. By providing this information, we hope that parents will be in a better position to support the efforts of their children as they transition to being college students.

Most parents report the experience of sending a child to college as one filled with anticipation, anxiety, confusion and hope. By opening day of the freshman year, many changes have already begun to happen. Over the course of the year, you should expect your student to become more independent, gain competence in new areas, and learn to develop healthy peer adult relationships. The college years are a time for a student to continue maturing and learning how to manage oneself and life in general.

While your child is developing into the mature and healthy adult they will one day be, you may hear some of the following confusing messages:

It is sometimes frustrating for parents to go through the growth process with their students, not knowing how or when to be helpful and receiving messages which are unclear or incomplete. Students may add to the uncertainty by changing rapidly — rejecting your help on Tuesday and actively seeking it on Wednesday. We've often heard about parents in great distress because their student predicted a poor outcome on an exam, but forgot to provide an update when the results were better than expected.

As a parent, it can be difficult to know when to help, when to step back, and/or how worried to get. Usually a parent's best guideline is to provide a steady, supportive home base while recognizing that there will be ups and downs in the needs and expectations of their student. Try to follow the lead of your student and encourage them to work through a problem with you acting as the coach or cheerleader. Help them balance their thoughts and emotions to make their best decisions. Let them know that you respect their right to make a decision and that you will serve as an advisor when asked. Remind yourself to notice and appreciate their new skills they develop; students often want their families to recognize their progress toward becoming adults. And, remember to take care of yourself in this "Help!/Don’t help!" process that may cause you a lot of confusion and exhaustion.

Most parents have a high investment in their student's decisions. Problems arise, however, when parents are more invested than students. It can be hard to lessen your involvement in your student's decisions out of fear that they will not assume responsibility. The irony is that students often don't step up to the task of being responsible until parents step back. After all, it's easier to ignore problems when someone else is worrying about them!

Taking a step back as a parent is uncomfortable, and at times frightening, because there is no guarantee that students will assume responsibility or that they will make the same decision as you would. The fear that the student is not accepting responsibility in the interim causes many parents to lose a lot of sleep. There is, however, no need to walk away disinterested and/or frustrated. Consider providing a concerned voice ("We're interested in what you decide, but we know you have to sort this out for yourself.") and remind yourself that you are helping by working with your student on developing their own decision-making skills.

For many students, coming to Pacific means finding out what college and life are about. It means learning that being a pharmacist is more than giving a patient their prescription and that psychology isn't necessarily the major for “people who like helping others.” It also means learning how to study and how often to study. Academic expectations are more rigorous than in high school. Students accustomed to receiving "A's" and "B's" have to work much harder to earn the top grades in college, particularly in mathematics and the sciences. They also have to figure out when they should be studying and how to motivate themselves to do so. Ultimately, they learn when to ask for help and when to resolve issues on their own.

Coming face-to-face with new challenges is common in college. Finding support in dealing with these challenges is equally important. The university has many resources (e.g., therapy, academic advisors, career counselors, health education, a chaplain, the department for students with disabilities, and much more) to address students’ needs. In their quest for independence, students sometimes assume that being an adult means it isn't necessary to ask questions. Parents can remind students that asking questions and using available resources reflects maturity — and that doing these things does not detract from their autonomy or growth as an adult. At the same time, parents and other family members can serve key roles in providing the support needed. Students tell us that it is important to know that their parent(s) will offer consistent support as they venture out to meet the world. The influential role which parents have in the lives of students continues through college and beyond.

The first visit home from college is usually an interesting one for the entire family. Students may return home thinking that their newly found independence will be recognized and appreciated by the family. In contrast, parents and siblings continue to live in their usual style and generally expect that the established “house rules” will still apply.

Parents can anticipate that their expectations will differ from those held by students during those first visits home. Instead of creating a situation in which a battle ensues, seeking a compromise that honors both the family's needs and the growing independence of the student might be an appropriate goal.

If your student is commuting to school from home, consider the ways in which their new level of responsibility and independence will be acknowledged in the home.

When College Students Head Home

It may seem like yesterday you were helping your child move in a residence hall or apartment.  Maybe you were worried and offered a prayer to the powers that be for your child to have a successful semester.  Now the semester is coming to an end or your student is on a break from school and a new challenge faces you: they are coming home.

For most families, the return of a student for the holidays and breaks can be a fun time to catch up on what everyone has been doing and to admire how your child is becoming more independent and mature.  For some families, however, the holidays can become difficult times with parents and children fighting about control and respect.  Children may want the same independence they had at school and parents may want the same dependence the children had in high school.  Each may see the others demand as unreasonable and disrespectful.

Hopefully college students and parents will keep in mind that holidays and breaks are about family and not about who has the power.  Each person has the opportunity be open to making changes in their plans to maintain the connections of family.  Here is a short list of recommendations for college students and their families:

  • If you want to be seen as an adult, act like one. Pitching a fit, demanding your freedom, and acting like the house is your private room are not adult behaviors.
  • Understand that your parents and siblings are human too and they will be hurt if you choose your friends over them. Spend time with family and friends, and think ahead about how you can do both.
  • You are returning to your house, but you are now an adult, and adults pick up the slack. Don't be ashamed to do more while you are at home. Your parents have cooked and cleaned for you most of your life. Now is a good time to pay it back.  Keep your room tidy, offer to fix a meal, or do some yard work, laundry, etc. Show off how much you have grown while away. 
  • Understand that from this point on your relationship with your parents can be based on mutual respect, not control.  Your parents are most likely worried that they did not raise you well and they may have annoying ways of asking if they did a good job.  Respect them and show them you turned out okay.

Most parents will seem a bit different from the last time you were home. They are growing too. They may be nervous or excited, and that is normal. But if your parents are really acting differently, don't be afraid to ask them about it. Job pressure, financial worries; even marriage problems can arise while you are away. Your parents may be ashamed to tell you about their problems; they don't want to worry you or burden you at a time when you are having fun.  Let them know you are older and more mature, and you want to help. You don't have to solve their problems, just listen and let them know you are there for them.

  • If you want to be seen as an admirable parent, act like one. Greeting your child at the door with a list of rules, demands, or criticisms are not admirable behaviors.
  • Understand that while you are important, you have always been there for your children, so it is natural for them to want to see friends first. Don't get in the way of visits with friends, but let your child know you want to spend time with them too.  You might even plan a meal or activity that includes friends.
  • Don't think the old rules need to stay in place, and try to avoid the temptation to pamper or baby your child. If you clean up after them they will come to expect it. True, they may need a day or two to unwind and catch up on sleep, but they are more mature now so let them show off their maturity. There is nothing wrong with a curfew, but talk about it first. They will likely be able to handle bigger responsibilities. One suggestion is to skip the curfew time but ask that they let you know where they will be and have them call if they change their plans. Your child cannot grow up if you keep a tight leash.
  • Understand that from this point on your relationship with your children can be based on mutual respect, not control. Your children are most likely worried that you think they are not mature, and they may have annoying ways of showing you they can handle themselves. Respect them and show them they turned out okay.

All children will seem a bit different when they come home, but severe changes could indicate that something is wrong. Find a quiet time to talk with your child, tell them what you are seeing that is different, and ask what has happened over the semester. Your child may think that they should handle problems without your help.  None of us get through life on our own.  Even parents need to talk to their parents. Keep your questions short; don't ask for details just help your child get the words out.

  • Take some time before everyone gets together in the same room and think about what you want to do over the holidays and breaks. Don't try to plan it all at once, but take a nice, calm, and slow start at hearing what everyone wants to do. You might want to sit down with some snacks, or a meal, and make some lists of all the possibilities and options, take a break, finish the meal, and then come back to the list later on.
  • Be sure to plan some time when everyone is together and do plan some time to be apart.  Parents need their partner time, just as children need their time with friends.  Everyone could probably use some private time too.

We have talked a bit about coming home, so we should probably talk some about going back to school.  Leaving for college can stir up strong emotions of excitement and sadness. Parents and children alike may have trouble saying good-bye. It is hard for a child to be excited about being in college if a parent is sobbing at the door as the car pulls out of the drive. But children do like to know that they are missed. This is a good time for families to start giving hugs if they have not done so before.  Your child needs to know you admire them no matter how old they are.  All of us are more willing to take risks if we know we have a safety net. Parents have been and may continue to be the safety net for children in college, but guess what? College students can now begin to be safety nets for parents. This is a time of great excitement and anxiety for parents and college students.  Celebrate both emotions; they go well together. Have a happy holiday or a great break.

I don't see the scenario that's happening with my child

Describing the many experiences which students and their families will have during college is not possible because every family is different. The therapists at CAPS would be happy to talk with you about your specific situation. Please contact us at 209.946.2315, ext. 2.

All students who pay the Student Health fee are eligible for therapy. We offer individual, couples, and group therapy. You can read more about these services on our Campus Services page or contact us at 209.946.2315, ext. 2 if you have any questions.

People seek therapy for many reasons, ranging from emotional distress to a wish to solve a long-standing problem to a desire to enhance their personal growth. Students come in to discuss issues such as roommate conflicts, anxiety and stress management, depression, eating disorders, and family concerns such as divorce and alcoholism.

Here are some of the common instances when therapy might be recommended to a student:

  • Fundamental or traumatic changes in personal relationships:
    Death of a family member or friend, divorce or separation in the family, pregnancy, etc.
  • Significant changes in mood or behavior:
    Withdrawal from others, asocial activity (e.g., lying, stealing), spells of unexplained crying or outbursts of anger, or unusual agitation.
  • References to suicide:
    It is difficult to distinguish between serious threats or passing idle thoughts of suicide; judgment about the seriousness of a situation is best made in consultation with a therapist.
  • Anxiety and depression:
    These are two of the more common symptoms which can significantly impair a student's functioning.
  • Psychosomatic symptoms:
    Concerns such as tension headaches, loss of appetite or excessive eating, insomnia or excessive sleeping, or chronic stomach distress, etc.
  • Alcohol and drug abuse:
    Evidence of excessive drinking, drug abuse, or drug dependence is often indicative of psychological problems.
  • Concerns about their major/future career path:
    Often these concerns reflect the student's struggle to understand themselves and the world of work. Sometimes it reflects a problem with decision-making in general.
  • Concern about academics:
    Such as contemplating dropping out of school, worrying about possible academic failure, or considering a transfer to another school.

It is not unusual for a student to come to the university having already received therapy at home. Others may not have previous therapy experience but might have a difficult time in making the transition to college. In either of these circumstances, students are advised to call and set up an appointment with one of our therapists. While parents cannot schedule an appointment for their child, please remember that your continued support and involvement of them is often crucial to their well-being. While the university aims to provide a supportive environment for students, it cannot replace the essential role of family.

Therapy often involves the disclosure of sensitive personal information. Any information a client shares with CAPS staff is protected by professional ethics and state law. As such, information about the therapy a student receives is not released except: when a student has given written permission; in circumstances which would result in clear danger to the student or others; or as may be required by law.

What does confidentiality mean for parents? It is understandable that you may wish to be involved when your child seeks therapy, but the confidentiality issues described above do not permit such involvement without the written consent of your student. Often, the best source of information for parents about the therapy process is the student. Beyond that, if more information is desired, your student must sign a written release specifically permitting us to communicate with you.

Parents, if you are concerned about the mental health of your student, please contact us at CAPS. Our staff members are happy to talk about your concerns and we can describe the services that are available for your children. We are available at 209.946.2315 ext. 2; if you reach our voicemail we will return your phone call within two business hours.

Adapted with permission from the University of Delaware, Center for Counseling & Student Development and the WKU Counseling and Testing Center.