11 Mar 2021

Tips for long-distance parenting

From Nine To Noon, 11:30 am on 11 March 2021

After 18 years of parenting, for some parents at least it might be hard to let go when their child is ready to go to university.

So when your now young adult leaves home for tertiary education and an independent life, how do you adjust and how can you support your young person during the first part of their first time living away from home?

Low numbers of Māori and female students are enrolling in engineering at the University of Canterbury.

When the kids are off to uni, how should parents parent them? Photo: Supplied / University of Canterbury

University of Canterbury Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Catherine Moran shares advice with Kathryn Ryan for both parents’ and students’ challenges during the big transition to university.

While a lot of the first years are in residence halls, Moran says there’s still a large proportion that aren’t and it’s important to make sure they all feel connected.

It was a challenge for some first-years when they had to go to level 2 in their second week of university this year.

“That was a point where we really needed to make sure our first years were well looked after and that they felt they knew where they were going, what they were doing and what to expect,” Moran says.

Some might feel a little lost in their first year as they navigate through the workload and campus.

“That’s normal, there’s always that little bit of getting used to things. The students will also find themselves in really large classes, especially for first years, and that’s different from high school where you are well known by Year 13, you have classmates and cohorts you know how to hang out and so on.

“That’s where we get in really early with clubs, tutorials and labs and workshops so giving them the opportunity to have some smaller group involvement.”

Moran says, as a parent herself, she understands parents want everything to go smoothly for their children but “as much as it will be a temptation to want to protect and solve the problems”, it’s better to let them know you’re there for them and encourage them to seek help.

“For parents, it is a real balancing act, because there is a real balance between staying in touch and letting go and letting your young person find their way.

“But part of the learning actually for the students is managing some of those challenges. Our responsibilities as a university is to recognise where those critical points are where the students might be having some difficulties, where in the first week they might be feeling a bit nervous or uneasy, and to make sure we’re available to address those.”

Some students may be limited in their communication with family, and parents probably won’t get the level of detail they would like about their life. In that case, Moran says you could set some ground rules before they take off about the level of communication you expect to know they are well.

“The other thing I would say is really encouraging their independence and agency because that’s what it’s about, while still being there if they need somebody to talk to or want to talk to. At the same time, encouraging them to get to know others, encouraging them to ask questions of their course co-ordinators of their teachers, of libraries, and also joining clubs.

“One of the challenges … is sometimes you hear when things are not going right so they’re busy most of the time, happy most of the time, but then they might get in touch when things aren’t going right and that can be disconcerting because it can make you feel focused on what’s not going right, but recognising that’s probably a point in time and there are people here to support the challenges and those challenges are normal and part of the growth.”

Switching from high school means it’s up to the student to talk about their grades and day-to-day activities. But they may also withhold information because they worry about how the parents will react, Moran says.

“It’s helpful for the parents to understand that students changing their courses or direction in the first year is really normal. About a third of students will come in and find something new or some new pathway or courses that they will tend down, and that will sometimes make parents anxious.

“That’s actually a really normal transition for students and it’s okay to do that.”

While the student may seem unengaged in communication, it’s still key for parents to keep them in the loop about what’s happening at home as they may find little changes or missing out on celebrations to be upsetting. Moran says that’s where support services can be of help too.

“Sometimes students just need to come in and talk to somebody, we have student care teams and other support teams, where the students might say something bad is happening at home, I don’t know who to talk to.

“All of those things – it’s useful to communicate them and be completely open with the student and to know again that there’s some help here for them as well.”

One reassurance for the parents, Moran says, is that they have a system where they check-in to see how much time the student is spending on their course and send them a text to make sure all is well.

“But that’s also a place where if students don’t respond then we come in and make contact with those students and if we are concerned we will contact the parents.”

The pressures of studies may come to the surface in the first five to six weeks, Moran says, and that may trigger feelings of not belonging on campus or fear of failure.

“A couple of things to encourage – one, it’s normal to feel a little unsure at times … one bad assignment, one bad falter doesn’t mean you can’t do it so it’s about getting that message around ‘a couple of road bumps are normal but to seek the help that you need.’

One of the trickiest challenges for parents can be the temptation to bring them back when they feel a little homesick. Moran suggests for parents to support them by recommending connections to others or seeking guidance and getting into clubs.

“Sometimes the loneliness does come from a little bit falling behind in the academic side and we can get you back on track.”

Parents can also send in a care package with the student’s favourite treats to keep them motivated.