Empty Nesters?

The duffle bags are packed, the car is loaded up, and every task on your back to school to-do list is checked off. Your child is officially prepared for college, but are you? How do you handle the empty nest syndrome and learn how to parent from a distance? How often should you call? Will your child really be able to make it on their own?

We asked Nancy Sandhu, Parent Program Coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to answer mom and dad's most common questions and help make this life changing transition a little smoother.

A. What advice do you have for parents that are having a hard time "letting go" when their kids gain new freedom at school?

1. There are a number of great resources to help parents understand and work through that transition. During orientation, parents will receive information and materials that address this transition. In addition, there are books about the transitions many parents experience when their student goes to college, such as Marjorie Savage's, You're on your own (but I'm here if you need me), that they can find at their local library or book store.

2. Connect with other parents who have gone through or are currently going through this transition. They not only can empathize, but may offer advice to help each other through the transition.

3. In addition, some things for parents to remember:
a. Before leaving, they should be prepared for their student's and their own conflicting emotions as the day of departure approaches. Discomfort is part of the process.
b. Realize that they have done a great job preparing their student for this next step and know that now that they are at college, their student is the one who should be in control. They should help their student progressively take on responsibility for all aspects of their lives.
c. Once their student is at school, they should stay connected with campus; learn about what campus events/opportunities are occurring and discuss those with their student — before and after. Many institutions have parent programs - providing Web sites, newsletters, handbooks, phone/e-mail hotlines, parent networks and other ways for parents to stay connected to campus in addition to the information they hear from their student.

B. What kind of questions, concerns do most parents have at the start of freshman year?

With that said, we do know that after the start of the semester, parents and family members miss their student and vice versa. This is where having a communication plan can be most beneficial — knowing when the next time will be that they will talk with their student and find out about their classes, their friends, and things they're experiencing outside of the classroom. At this time, they may be discussing plans for frequency of returning home, transportation home, etc. Parents should also share with their student the things that are going on at home as well as discuss any upcoming changes at home in regards to family members redecorating, vacations, pets, etc.

In addition, a few weeks or a month into the semester, parents may get "the call" from their student who thinks they may have made the "wrong decision." Parents should remember that as with any major transition period, students will have their ups and downs. They should remember to listen with an open mind and be supportive. Early on, their student may not do as well academically than they're used to. If/when this happens; parents should refer their students with resources and let them know they believe in them.

C. What should parents talk to their kids about before they leave for school? Are there certain guidelines they should establish when it comes to keeping in touch, academic expectations, managing money, drinking, safety, etc?
1. Academic expectations — encouraging their student to set his/her own goals

2. Determine a financial plan — including discussing payment/spending expectations and responsibilities (where are bills sent; who pays them?)

3. Communication plan — both of their expectations of how often and in what way they will communicate with one another.

4. Discuss the use of alcohol and other personal choices your student will be making. Encourage responsibility, but parents must know that they can't control what happens.

5. Talk about ways to stay safe-using campus safety services, traveling together and staying together, walking in well-lit places, locking their door, never leaving valuables unattended, and most of all, emphasizing common sense.

6. College is a time for students to make connections with others who might be different from themselves and try new things! Welcome events are designed to help new students make connections with one another and to the campus. Encourage your student to do both of these.

7. Tell them to continue to do things they love once on campus, but also encourage them to try something that they've always wanted to do.

D. Is there anything specific you would advise parents to be sure to know about when their kids start school?
A lot of work is in the preparation for the year because their student is the one who needs to progressively take on more responsibility for all aspects of their lives.

With that said, once their student arrives on campus, it may be helpful for parents to access a list of important dates for the upcoming academic year, especially due dates for bills if parents are responsible for coordinating payment, as well as understand when different events occur throughout the year for their student — i.e., welcome events, first round of exams, homecoming, finals, when decisions about next years' housing arrangements should be made, etc. This not only will help parents stay connected with what's happening with their student, but will also provide them with matters they can talk with their student in anticipation of and after the fact.

It also may be helpful to have an information resource they can use, such as through a parent program or service — such as a Web site and/or a handbook, where they can access general information about campus quickly and easily as well as identify a place on campus they can call or e-mail with questions.

E. What services should a school's parent program provide? Do most schools have these services?

UW-Madison recognizes that parents and families play an important role in student success. The new Parent Program, launched this past June, connects parents and families to the university so that they may support their student in making the most of the Wisconsin Experience. Research has shown that today, parents are students' number one advisors. The goal of this new program is to provide parents with important and timely information so that they have the necessary tools to best serve in that role. This program is not about perpetuating helicopter parents, those parents who inappropriately hover over their student, not allowing them to make their own choices, face consequences for mistakes they make, and impede their ability to become self-sufficient. It is about educating parents on how to be supportive of their students' development and providing them with information to understand how to be an effective mentor while allowing their student to continue to learn and grow into a responsible, independent, young adult.

(Note: While the services below are designed for University of Wisconsin students, check your child's school website for similar resources and information. )

Services currently or soon-to-be provided:

• Parent Program Web site, www.parent.wisc.edu. This dynamic resource connects parents to important and relevant information online. It serves as a reference for general campus information (i.e., academics, financial, housing, health and safety, out of the classroom learning, etc.) important dates, timely reminders, news updates, frequently asked questions, and links to commonly requested offices and information. It features an online sign up for our newsletter and parent notices as well as an online form to ask a question.

• Parent Newsletter (coming fall 2007): Provides important timely campus information, including tips for parents on supporting their college student, news, and upcoming events. (Print and electronic options)

• Parent Notices (coming fall 2007): Provide parents and families with critical campus announcements. (Print and electronic options)

• Parent hotline and e-mail service 877-262-3977 (toll-free), 608-262-3977 (local), or e-mail parent@uwmad.wisc.edu. Personalized services by Parent Program Professional Staff. Inquiries are triaged using an internal database. Parents may also submit questions/concerns directly online.

• Printed calendar/handbook (Ready summer 2008): A 12-month calendar beginning in August that breaks down important month-by-month information. It helps parents understand and support their students' transition through the first year and features a directory of important resources and information. May include information on transitions relevant to sophomores through seniors.

• Expanded event opportunities (TBD): UW-Madison currently provides an event opportunity for parents of first year students. It is a goal of this program to provide opportunities to invite parents and families of all students to campus.

Research has attributed this increased involvement to the changing relationships between students and parents as well as the fact that higher education has become a more costly investment and parents are looking for a return on that investment. This past decade, especially, higher education institutions all across the country have been responding in some shape or form to their increased involvement - creating a variety of parent programs and services. At UW-Madison, a 2005 study of parents of current students showed that parents had a good experience with the campus during the admissions process, the campus visit process, and through summer orientation, but they felt like they dropped off the map after that.

F. Any general tips for building and maintaining a strong relationship between parents and their kids during the college years?
1. Be supportive: Listen with an open mind. Parents should be a coach rather than a problem-solver. When communicating with their student, parents should ask themselves, "Is this what's best for my student?" Parents should use the information they learn at orientation and through their institutions' Parent Program, if one is available, to refer their student to on campus resources.
2. Although how often and in what way students and parents communicate with each other is a personal choice between parents and students, some find it helpful to set day/time to talk each week. Plan for visits as well - both when the student will come home and when parents will visit.
3. Parents should be sure to let your student know what's going on at home. Don't make any major changes without talking to them.
4. Write and send care packages — especially during stressful times in the semester.

Keep checking iMag for more back to school tips!