Many students find the transition from high school — where they’re still under their parents’ protective umbrella — to college overwhelming. Many find their newly earned independence bittersweet. They’re excited for all that’s ahead but also grieve everything they’re leaving behind, knowing friendships will change. Most of them will experience some degree of loneliness as they try to find their fit in this new environment, which can make the insecurities and doubts that come with taking one’s first steps into adulthood even more challenging.
While we can’t solve their problems, shelter them from their fears, or guarantee their success, we can speak hope and courage into their lives. Our words, as parents, in turn can help them find the resiliency they need in order to thrive.
Here are 5 things college kids need to hear from mom and dad.
1. Failure isn’t final.
Early into my daughter’s freshman semester, she called me in tears. “What if I don’t have what it takes?” she asked. She wasn’t just referring to managing her coarse load, though that proved a sufficiently stressful concern. But she was also grappling with what it meant to become an adult. While the university provided something of a springboard, she still felt the stakes were high. She knew she needed to pass the test to pass the class to earn the degree with the GPA needed to survive in today’s often volatile job market.
Many college students wrestle with similar, and at times, debilitating emotions. This inner angst can do more than steal their sleep, concentration, and effectiveness. It can also hinder them from embracing healthy risk. They might even forsake following God’s will for that which feels safest, easiest, or seems to come with guarantees.
Their self-protection tendencies can prevent them from fully experiencing the beyond-expectation life Christ promised. But we can help them shift their perspective, encouraging them to see every setback and mistake as a learning opportunity. In God’s hands, every apparent failure can lead to incredible growth and maturity our kids can’t develop any other way.
2. You can be an adult and still ask for help.
Sometimes we, as a culture, mistake independence for maturity. Our kids can hold this same erroneous view, which can challenge their ability to ask for help when needed. Plus, the journey into adulthood can feel confusing. In many ways this transition hits college kids rapidly. One morning, they’re eating breakfast in our kitchen; the next they’re waking up in a dorm with little to no direct oversight. They must manage their schedules and responsibilities, including when to go to bed and whether or not to study for a test. Those guardrails, like curfews, that kept them safe for 18 years? Gone.
While all this freedom can be, well, freeing, it can come with a great deal of pressure. They might be tempted to think they need to navigate this change perfectly with everything figured out. We know, however, that none of us have all the answers to every problem. On occasion, even the wisest, strongest, and most experienced individuals need advice, encouragement, and support. Our kids probably recognize this as well. They just might need periodic reminders.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we should attempt to fix all their challenges or shield them from every potential mistake. When we become overly involved in their lives, while we may indeed help them avoid a momentary crisis, we risk crippling them in the longterm. Our actions inevitably send one or more of the following messages: “I believe you’re incapable of succeeding in this environment,” or “failure is insurmountable and to be avoided at all cost.” But we can remind them, through our words, actions, and reactions that we believe in them and remain available to them. We do this, in part, by listening without judgement, and helping, without criticism, when invited.
3. I don’t expect you to fulfill my dreams.
During the college years, our kids will make numerous major life decisions. What dreams will they pursue? What career path will they follow? Will they marry, and if so, whom? This will also be an important developmental time where they will begin to discover who they truly are; who God created them to be. You can imagine how confusing and uncomfortable these questions can feel as they try to separate personal desire from societal pressure. We can make this process easier by assuring them of our support.
When my daughter was in school, she often told me about friends and classmates who felt pressured by their moms and dads to seek certain degrees. I doubt their parents verbalized these expectations. I imagine most of them weren’t even aware of the unspoken messages they were sending. In fact, were I to guess, I’d suggest they might not even have realized they themselves were attempting to live out their dreams for their kids. Most likely their dreams were cushioned in beliefs regarding what they felt was best for their child.
Let me give an example. Say your student told you they wanted to change their major from accounting to art history. Perhaps, knowing the financial challenges they could later face, you urge them to reconsider and maybe even threaten to withdraw financial support. But what if they’d rather follow their passion, even if that means living poor, than to work in a field they don’t enjoy? Or, what if they decide to drop out of school entirely for a lifetime of secretarial work?
These are tough decisions with the potential to make any parent anxious. No one wants to see their kids struggle. But we must guard against trying to play the role of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Students need freedom in order to discover themselves and to fully follow God’s leading. Our goal, then, is to guide them in that process, not to drown out Christ’s voice, or theirs, with ours.
4. God’s plans for you are bigger than your struggles.
Our daughter faced numerous, seemingly insurmountable challenges during her academic career. Not only did she choose an incredibly demanding major, but she did so with two undiagnosed learning disabilities. She often studied into the early morning hours, worked through every practice assignment, and routinely sought help from tutors only to fail the test for which she’d so tirelessly prepared. And while she managed to pass, her continual struggle led to increased insecurities regarding her future.
Her anxiety increased as time went on and her classes became more challenging. What if, three years and tens of thousands of dollars into her academic journey, her struggles with coursework forced her to change majors? Or, what if she managed to graduate, but a low GPA made her unemployable?
Her concerns were valid. I knew sometimes our hard work isn’t enough and life doesn’t always play out as we expect. But I also knew God had a plan for her, and I did my best to consistently convey that truth to her. We talked about verses like Ephesians 2:10, which states, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (NIV). Holding tight to this promise, I reminded her that God did indeed have a plan for her, one that He set into motion before she took her first breath or failed her first test. What’s more, she was his handiwork, His masterpiece, and precious child, whom He was molding, training, and equipping to do all that He would later assign.
We can help our students view their lives, struggles and all, through the lens of God’s sovereignty. Knowing God’s bigger than any setback or problem they’ll face helps increase their courage and resilience.
5. I’m proud of who you are not what you do.
Most children, adults included, want to please their parents and know we’re proud of them. An aptly spoken word of encouragement and affirmation can speak such strength into their hearts. When we center our praise on their achievements, however, our statements might have the opposite effect. They may develop an unhealthy fear of disappointing us. This in turn can lead to an enslaving sense of perfectionism where they feel like they’re continually striving to meet a standard that remains just out of reach. Or, they freeze and give up altogether.
When we praise our kids for who they are, however, we speak life and hope into their spirits. For example, when your student passes a class, instead of praising her for the grade, you could say, “I’m proud of how hard you worked this semester. It’s fun to see the results of your perseverance.” You see, she knows she may not be able to earn an A, no matter how hard she tries. But she can always persevere with diligence. This also encourages them to focus on what truly drives long-term success — character.
The college years are a frightening, exciting, memorable, and often confusing time where students grapple with doubts, fears, and challenges they aren’t certain they’re fully prepared to deal with. While our time with them might be limited, they still need our love and support. They need to know that it’s okay to make mistake because failure isn’t final. That we won’t fault them for asking for help. They want the freedom to pursue their dreams, not ours, and the confidence their Savior holds their future in His hands. And most importantly, they need to hear, again and again, that we believe in them and are proud of them, even when they mess up. These truths can give our students the resiliency they need to thrive in school and in life.
Written by: Jennifer Slattery is a writer and speaker who hosts the Faith Over Fear podcast. She’s addressed women’s groups, Bible studies, and writers across the nation. She’s the author of Building a Family and numerous other titles and maintains a devotional blog at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.com.
As the founder of Wholly Loved Ministries, she’s passionate about helping women experience Christ’s freedom in all areas of their lives. Visit her online to learn more about her speaking or to book her for your next women’s event and sign up for her free quarterly newsletter HERE and make sure to connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.