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With all the excitement of starting something new, Chelsea Hinton and her mother Lisa didn’t expect Chelsea’s rocky start to college life.

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Last month you may have been among the millions of parents to drop your teen off for her first year away at college. You lugged in and unpacked the countless storage tubs full of necessities. You said goodbye and left. It was hard to leave, but you did so knowing that for your child, this is the next step to adulthood.

But then the calls and texts flood in. “I hate it here. I hate my classes. I have no friends. I want to come home.” As a parent you find yourself in the tricky midst of trying to understand how to interpret and react to the signals your child is sending.

 “Homesickness is very common, says Dr. Aesha L. Uqdah from the University of Louisville Counseling Center. “Being in a new environment with new responsibilities trying to function as an independent adult can be overwhelming, but at this point the parent should be moving into being more of a consultant than a problem solver. It’s important to resist the urge to ‘fix’ things. Also, resist the urge to let them come home on the weekends, at least for the first few weeks.” 

For Lisa Hinton, this wasn’t an easy task. Two weeks into freshman year, her daughter’s roommate left school, leaving her alone to fend for herself. Lisa says, “In high school, Chelsea had a small, close-knit group of friends, but none of them went to this college. She always felt a little socially awkward, so things weren’t as easy for her as for my other two. She wasn’t one to reach out to make new friends, so I was worried. At least with a roommate, she would have someone to go out and explore with. I couldn’t see her doing it on her own and yes, I did everything they told me not to!”

Dr. Ugdah continues, “Research shows that students who feel more connected to the university community are happier and more successful academically. (Because of this) the school plans a lot of social activities and opportunities for incoming freshmen in order for them to connect with others. Students who go home on the weekends, (especially during the first few weeks), miss out on this and can end up feeling even more left out down the road.”

“Even though all my friends and family told me not to,” Lisa says, “I talked to Chelsea every night to make sure she was OK. She was coming home every weekend, and I quickly realized it was making everything worse for her at school. Finally, there came a weekend where we were going out of town and Chelsea said she’d come home to watch the house. I told her no. She needed to stay put. It was hard, but I knew I had to do the tough love thing. I felt so bad, but I stopped all the calls and didn’t answer hers, either.”

Chelsea Hinton remembers this well. “Going to college, I anticipated this awesome new start. I thought I would have this great bond with my roommate and everything would be good. When that didn’t work out, I guess I kept seeking a safe place and that was home. (I did call my mom a lot.) When my parents stopped answering my calls I kept wondering why they were mad at me. I guess as a parent you have to walk that minefield of tough love sometimes. In hindsight I can see my mom wasn’t helping me letting me call all of the time because rather than focusing on where I was, I was fostering my need to be around them and safe.” 

She continues, “Cold turkey definitely hurt, but it forced me to fill that void. I threw myself into my academics, and I tried to join a lot of study groups. It took my mind off of home and the isolation I felt. Pretty soon, I felt better. The real turning point for me came in sophomore year when I was late for signing up for a dorm. I was thrown into a suite of all seniors. I was like, ‘Oh, my God’ at first, but I had more coping skills by then, so it turned out fine. In fact one of the girls became a close, older sister sort of figure for me.” 

Dr. Uqdah says, “To the freshman who doesn’t have another student to attend social activities with, I would say to just go anyway. The easiest thing to do during Welcome Week is to just show up. There are a lot of outdoor social activities and many of them have free food, games, and lots of opportunities to meet people. They are set up to be welcoming for you. If that’s not your thing, look into joining some of the registered university groups. The University of Louisville has over 500. 

“Another important point,” says Dr. Uqdah, “parents should give themselves some grace. They are adjusting as well. This is a new stage of life and they may have feelings of ambivalence. Some may need to readjust and make a conscious effort to focus on themselves rather than their child.”

The bottom line is that this is the time to exercise trust in the decisions that have been made. Colleges and universities are well versed in how to work with students, especially incoming freshmen. An open line of communication is important, but so is the realization that adjusting to college life is a process, and grace for both student and parent is essential.

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What are some things a parent can do or say to help your child adjust to campus life?

  1. Keep lines of communication open; be there for them — sometimes they may just need you to listen.
  2. Resist the urge to fix common issues like roommate conflicts or problems with a professor. Be available to brainstorm and advise. Remember that some changes will be positive and productive, while others may cause tension and discomfort. It’s all a normal part of this stage of development. 
  3. Familiarize yourself with campus resources, but encourage your child to access them on their own. These resources include the counseling center, Dean of Students, academic advising, and housing departments.
  4. Send email, snail mail, and care packages. Your child needs to experiment with independence, but they still want to feel connected to you.

P.S. Read about this family who experienced a devastating loss. 


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