Taking a Step to the Side as They Step Forward

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How selfhood begins with walking away,
And love is proved
In the letting go.
-C. Day Lewis

Those of us living in Davidson, NC (and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere) just said a quick hello and goodbye to the longest day of the year. With the Summer Solstice in the rearview mirror, it’s inevitable that the remaining months of summer will accelerate steadily into a fast forward pace to the Fall Semester. For you all, the parents and guardians of college students, fall will approach even faster. Whether it’s your first time or your fourth time, the growing anticipation of dropping your student off at college involves a tangled assortment of emotions. With feelings ranging from pride and excitement to anxiety and dread, you are once again tasked with managing (or sidestepping) your own experience for the sake of being supportive and responsive to your student’s developmental vulnerability. As folks charged with assisting your students in their unique and respective journeys through Davidson College, the counselors at Davidson’s Student Counseling Center (SCC) would like to offer a few suggestions or tips that will help you and help your students, independently and collectively, as you all navigate this critical and transitional time.

Tip #1: Honor the Tough.

Although it’s easy to fall victim to generational over-generalizations (poor Millennials) that suggest today’s youth are too sensitive and soft, please do not ignore the reality that rates of self-reported anxiety and depression in the college population are increasing. The reality is that the transition to and through college is hard and today’s college kids are taking it hard. Davidson is arguably even harder.

Now, we argue that soft and hard can co-exist effectively. Your students can be sensitive and have grit and toughness at the same time. Honor the hard (don’t minimize the challenges), validate the soft (let them express their feelings) and remind them that they’ve “got this” (instill hope that they will eventually overcome the hard). Do it with nonjudgmental listening and empathy, validating that they have taken on a path of many challenges, but none that they can’t and haven’t overcome before. Hand them a tissue, grab one for yourself and say, “we’ve got this.”

Tip #2: Know the Fear

It’s been said that the three greatest fears that every child increasingly faces as they get older are: 1) the fear of letting their parents down; 2) the fear of failure; and 3) the fear of not or never belonging. These fears probably reach their peak in college and are arguably more pronounced in Davidson students who are intensely ambitious and caring individuals.

So, first, tell/remind your student that #1 is unconditionally impossible, #2 is inevitable and necessary and #3 is only possible if they don’t belong to themselves first. Remind them they’ve already launched upward and forward. . . you and they have already done the dirty work. They will still fall and fail at times, but they will get up stronger and more resilient and steadfast. Remind them that is how they learned to walk (show videos if they somehow don’t remember that). Finally, address the #3 fear with the knowledge that the most important and most lasting relationship that they will ever have is the relationship with themselves. Yes, it’s easy to feel isolated, alone and left out, even in a small, warm place like Davidson. Belonging is a universal need that unfortunately can turn into a vicious competition to be brought “in” and not left “out”. However, getting too caught up in impression management (i.e., pleasing or being like others) is the most assured way of losing yourself. The most predictable and controllable way for your student to rise above this fray is to be intentional about how they spend their time alone. Yes, they should keep exploring and nudging themselves into groups, but in the meantime, teach them how to not only survive, but thrive on their own and in their own free time.

Tip #3: Relationship > Right

As fellow parents/guardians of college-aged kids, we agree with the known fact that parents and guardians are usually right almost 100% of the time in deciding what’s best for our children. However, as counselors, we also know that even if that is true, our students have a greater and faster chance of learning and growing if they live, fail and succeed by making their own decisions.

Again, trust that you and they have done the dirty work during the earliest, most critical developmental moments in their lives. They have already launched upward and forward with all the hard work everyone has done to this point. Yes, it’s more than likely you’ll begin seeing more wrong turns, U-turns even and, geez, start witnessing more than your fair share of “what were they thinking” decisions and behaviors. But, take a deep breath, remember your own adolescence and early adulthood, take another deep breath and then begin building a relationship/partnership that is more supportive and consultative than authoritative. At this point it is more important to be in a relationship than to be right. They need to be keeping their eyes forward and not looking back to see if you’re pleased. Better yet, they can look to the side, knowing you’re there, witnessing the whole thing with curiosity and pride. If that’s not convincing enough, remember these are the folks that are going to be picking out your assisted-living arrangements when it’s their time to be right.

We hope these little tips help. And we know they are “little” compared to the enormity of the occasion. But just like your student, you don’t have to do it alone. We may not know all the answers, much less the right answers, but we’re good listeners. Feel free to call us at 704-894-2451 for parent/guardian consultations or visit our website for more information. Please note that parents/guardians are not permitted to make appointments on behalf of their students.

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About Author

John Brunelle

John Brunelle, Ph.D., is the Associate Director/Clinical Director of Counseling for Davidson's Center for Student Health and Well-Being. His clinical interests include working with student athletes, issues related to grief and loss, group counseling and college student development.

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