Some parents start right at the top.
After one anxious dad contacted the college president’s office to voice concerns that his daughter wasn’t registered for the “right classes,” I followed up with the student directly.
It turned out that she and her father weren’t on the same page at all. Not only was she satisfied with her courses; she had no idea that her dad intended to intervene on her behalf — and she was mortified that he had done so. Being embarrassed by parents who meddle in your affairs is a normal, healthy response for a college student. I worry about the ones who have been taught to be helpless. What will happen to them when their moms and dads are no longer around to solve their problems?
Fortunately, there are many ways to support young people as they learn to speak up for themselves, solve their own problems and make important decisions.
Here are a few:
Encourage them to take small steps. If your student tells you something isn’t going well — a roommate who’s abusing alcohol or drugs, a less-than-stellar exam grade — encourage the student to take a first step: Send an email to an adviser on campus, or tap in a phone reminder to call an appropriate person and set up an appointment.
Help them write “scripts.” If your student is scared to talk to a professor or feels intimidated by a dean, help write a “script” for the occasion. Chances are you’ve had experience talking to your boss or manager, so tell your student what words to use. I tell students who have trouble talking with professors to write down a few sentences like, “Hi, Professor X, I’m Sally, and I’m in your intro to biology course. I wondered if I could speak with you about my midterm. I made a lot of mistakes, and I’d like to understand how to do better next time.” Ask your student to write down your suggestions in a notebook or type them into a phone, somewhere your student won’t forget to look right before stepping into a professor’s office.
Encourage them to follow up. Sometimes a student will work up the courage to find a professor, only to hear something disappointing: They are failing the course, or the next exam will count as their final grade, or they can’t possibly take a makeup exam after missing the first quiz. Some students will take this disappointing news and turn it inward, feeling terrible and using negative self-talk. (“I’m so bad at this subject, I should just drop out of school. I don’t belong here.”) If your student has a tendency to do this, help to reframe the disappointment as a learning opportunity: Your student should follow up with an email or another visit to the professor with specific questions like, “What can I do to be better prepared for the next exam?” or “If I can’t make up this quiz, is there another way for me to try to understand the material and raise my grade?”
Remind them to talk to more than one person. A professor, a friend or a teaching assistant might have one answer to a question, but others on campus might have advice of a different kind. Encourage your student to get to know other adults on campus who might be able to help navigate a less-than-ideal situation. Getting lots of information and input can help them make better decisions. Remind them that learning to live with disappointment is a facet of self-advocacy. Even students who are great at asking for what they need may not get the response they want. Remind them that this is O.K.: Rejection is a part of life. Too many parents have a “don’t-take-no-for-an-answer” mind-set, and their children adopt the same attitude. This approach rarely works for self-advocacy. Remember that every conversation is a give-and-take, and coming off as angry or inflexible is only going to create tension with the very people who are in a position to help. Students need to learn when to accept “no” as the final answer and when it is appropriate to push back or ask more questions.