For parents, dropping a child off at college can be an emotional shock


Symmone Gauer, Lifestyles Editor (She/her)

Will they be okay? What if they can’t make friends? What will I do with my time now that they aren’t at home?

These are questions parents often ask themselves after moving their child into their first college dorm room.

As a parent, you spend 18 years preparing your child for the world, but sometimes it’s hard to let go, and the transition can be overwhelming for both you and your new college student. Whether you are a first-time college parent or an empty nester feeling the plight, you should know that you are not alone.

“I cried all the way home,” South Dakota State University parent Wanda Freudenthal said about dropping her daughter off for the first time three years ago. “You have to know that it’s okay to be upset, but you know that they’re going to a nice school—they’re probably going to be okay.”

Parents share many of the same thoughts and concerns as the students who are just starting college, so it’s helpful to know the resources SDSU has to offer to combat those issues, as well as ways to help parents cope themselves.

For Doug Wermedal, associate vice president for Student Affairs, working at SDSU gave him the comfort of knowing his two children, one a graduate of SDSU and the other a current student, would have a variety of resources available.

“While never guaranteed, I was still assured a good outcome,” he said.

Helping Students Help Themselves

The first resource available to students is the residence halls. Residence halls are like training wheels for an independent future, says Wermedal, and it helps with student development.

“I had so much freedom that I didn’t know what to do with it, and in a way that stressed me out at first,” Faith Crissman, Freudenthal’s daughter, said.

Crissman, a second-year pharmacy student from Aberdeen, talked about how basic things like not having her mom there to wake her up in the morning took a lot of change on her end, but eventually she adjusted while living on campus.

Another nice thing about living in the residence halls is the Community Assistants (CA’s) are typically the first line of defense and point-of-contact for students.

CA’s are a really good resource with low-stress interaction, as are the hall directors. Whether a student has a roommate issue, a problem with the room itself, trouble meeting people or just a general question about where to go next, the residence halls provide solutions to a wide range of concerns.

Rebecca Peterson, the director of Housing and Residential Life, advises parents to “empower their students to make that outreach or that connection” when it comes to finding friends. While it may be easy to get discouraged, Peterson recommends that students do one small thing a day to connect with others, whether that be leaving their door open, asking their roommate to go to dinner or attending a floor program.

Crissman agrees these are great ways to meet people, especially at the beginning of the school year.

“You have time to figure out your best friends,” she said.

Students have other opportunities to meet people by eating at Larson Commons, going to the Student Engagement Expo, joining organizations and starting conversations with classmates. They can even head to the Office of Student Affairs in the Student Union, the Multicultural Center, the Office of International Affairs or the American Indian Student Center.

Homesickness, adjustment and transition issues, depressive symptoms, social anxiety and general anxiety are all major concerns from students, but the Student Health Clinic & Counseling Services is a good resource that provides help for both mental and physical needs as well as a 24/7 crisis counselor, group counseling opportunities and outreach workshops and presentations on campus.

Andrea Boglić, one of the counselors on campus, said he wants parents “to know that [their students] are in good hands, taken care of, and supported when needed.”

Dean of Students Toby Uecker says navigating tough times is a common occurrence among students.

“It can feel like it’s an isolated situation for your student, but it’s not,” he said. “Your student is not alone.”

Uecker has learned one of the best behaviors parents can emulate is having open conversations about struggle and mental health for their children.

“Don’t judge,” he said. “Be a partner with them and learn to recognize the difference between when a student needs to vent and when they need a referral or advice. Ask about the purpose of the conversation early on so you have better communication.”

Experts agree that knowing when your student needs help fixing something or just needs a listening ear and support is critical in maintaining healthy relationships all around, and as much as a parent wants to do everything in their power to fix a situation, it’s often better for the student’s mental wellbeing to let them handle it.

Crissman said her mom is more like her cheerleader and gives her confidence over the phone when she’s having issues. “She always hypes me up in a way,” she said, which leads her to taking her own action against the situation, if need be.

“As a parent, you want to be there to sit with her, but you can’t,” said Freudenthal. “You just have to be a good listener and try to give her coping mechanisms.”

College academics are different than those of high school, and it’s common for students to have a rough class or semester. For Crissman, throwing herself into her studies was how she tried to cope with the transition, but that sometimes got overwhelming.

“I was holding myself to way too high of expectations, and I had to be forgiving of myself. You can’t expect yourself to be perfect all the time,” she said. “Be upset about it for like a day and then say, ‘I have to work harder now.’”

That’s an example of a student needing support rather than a solution.

Wermedal and his wife have a philosophy on when to intervene:  it’s the difference between suffering vs struggling. With minor struggles, leaving the kids alone will teach them problem solving skills, independence and resilience, but they always intervene when a child is suffering.

He said parents should also stay involved, but not immersed.

“Involved is asking about how a test went. Immersed is calling on Tuesday to make sure they’re studying for their test on Wednesday.”

Professors, academic advisors, the Writing Center and the Wintrode Student Success Center are all other good academic resources for students.

To the students adjusting to college life, counselor Boglić says, “Allow yourself to feel uncomfortable—that is completely fine…Do not feel scared because you do not know something—just ask. Focus on your mental and physical health [and on finding] your best way of living your life.”

There are many opportunities and resources at SDSU—students just have to take them, and parents just have to encourage them.

But again, being overprotective does not allow the student to grow and become independent.

“A parent has to be confident that their child can be successful even without them,” Boglić said.

Letting Them Go

Peterson says trust is the key word here. After instilling values and good decision-making skills in your child, it all comes down to, “trusting the work you did as a parent and trusting your child” while recognizing that they are now the one in charge of their own life.

“When they come home,” Crissman said, “show them all the love that you can, but at the same time, don’t treat them like they’re still in high school—because they’re not.”

Sometimes that is easier said than done.

One way parents can ease the transition, though, is by finding something else to devote their time to and keep them busy. Freudenthal, for example, took up volunteering with the Women of Today organization for the high school Miss Aberdeen contest.

Taking up old hobbies and reconnecting with a partner are other good and fulfilling ways parents can cope with their child starting college. Then, all that’s left is to simply enjoy it when they come home for holidays or weekends.

Crissman says her relationship with her mother grows stronger each time she visits home because the focus is on their time together.

“While your kids are growing up, we always focus on keeping the house clean, impressing other people, etc.,” Freudenthal said, but her advice is now, at the end of the day, what’s most important is spending that time with your child and having fun. “Let the laundry go today—it can wait.”


Advice for parents

  • Identify new roles you want to fill. Volunteer or get involved in your community.
  • Take up personal hobbies again. Try some that you’ve always wanted to do.
  • Reconnect with your partner. Do activities together that don’t revolve around your child.
  • Have regularly scheduled times to chat—but don’t overdo it. “Involved but not immersed” – Doug Wermedal
  • Remember your child is a college student and trust them with that fact.
  • Communicate and learn when to intervene and when to listen. “Suffering vs struggling” – Doug Wermedal
  • Have open conversations about mental health and set an example.
  • Avoid encouraging your child to dwell on the negative but give them time and space to vent.
  • Know your child is in good hands and encourage them to seek out the resources and connections available.
  • Be their support and enjoy the time you have with them.