While sitting in my favorite study place a few years ago, a campus coffee shop, I overheard one side of a phone conversation between a student and a parent.  I wasn’t trying to listen in, but the student’s volume and intensity made it unavoidable.  The young man had apparently overdrawn his bank account and a couple of checks or charges had been returned for insufficient funds.  He seemed confused and worried, and he was clearly angry.  One statement made it clear to me that his anger about the situation was being dumped on the parent on the other end of the line.  “So what are YOU going to do to fix this for me?” he demanded.

Ah, the parent’s dilemma.  The college years provide countless opportunities for your student to become increasingly independent, to take greater responsibility for managing their own situation and for making their own decisions. This is what most parents want for their students as well.  However, as the responsibility for managing their own lives shifts more onto them, it necessitates a change in your role as a parent.  It requires parents to ask the question, “What constitutes healthy involvement at this time in my student’s life?”

It’s often difficult for parents to know how much to step in and how much to stay out of it.  “Healthy involvement” has changed in meaning for you over the years.  When your student was very young, “healthy involvement” meant taking care of their basic needs, stopping them before they run into the street, keeping sharp objects out of their reach, that sort of thing.  As they grow and learn to do more things on their own, “healthy involvement” takes on different meanings.  The college experience provides students with a giant leap into greater independence, and it prompts parents to reconsider how to be involved and how to be helpful, particularly when students experience some unwanted consequences to their decisions.

That brings me back to the conversation I overheard.  It would be natural and perhaps easier for many parents to say, “I’ll take care of this for you?”  However, if your goal is to help your student grow and become more independent, it may be necessary to start with the question to yourself, “What constitutes healthy involvement in this situation?  How can I be involved in this that will promote their growth and independence?”

This situation is particularly salient for me right now.  My own son, while not a college student, is right square in the middle of these early steps in greater independence.  He has suffered some unwanted consequences for his decisions (and avoidances), and I can see some likely disasters up ahead for him.  So what constitutes healthy involvement?  Should I intervene to help him avoid disaster, or should I simply be available to help him pick up the pieces and make sense of things once they fall apart?  That’s the dilemma for every parent.

I will in the coming weeks post some guidelines for healthy involvement based on my experience as a psychologist with college students as well as information I’ve drawn from some helpful websites.

So, to the parent on the other end of  “So what are YOU going to do to fix this for me?” as well as every other parent, including myself, ask yourself, “What constitutes healthy involvement here?”  Then consider a response such as, “I’m willing to help you figure out how to manage this on your own.”