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College Expectations: Parents—How to Talk with and Support Your College Student

Source information is listed at the bottom of the page.

Attending college after high school is frequently a difficult transition—for students and parents alike. For students, even when they may indicate otherwise, they need parental support. At the same time, parents need to understand the demands of college and what their son or daughter is experiencing. It's important for all involved to communicate their needs while trying to understand those of the other.

The strategies listed below offer information about and examples of how to talk with and offer support to your college freshman.

Note: In the discussion below, "son" and "daughter" are used interchangeably.


1. Become informed about first-year college expectations.


  • Become familiar with Southwestern College programs and support services. Visit the SWC web site and explore what is offered.
  • Read information mailed home by the college.
  • Ask questions: SWC faculty and staff are eager to answer your questions and offer support to your son or daughter.
  • Be available if your college student wants to talk about school.


2. Be a good listener: leave out judgments, interruptions, and advice.
  • Listen with the intention of fully understanding what your college student thinks and feels.
  • Clear your mind, stay focused, and remain silent.
  • Ask her to expand or clarify and listen quietly.
  • Don’t fill in the blanks with your own experiences.
  • Say, for example, “Tell me more about that,” or “How did you feel when that happened?”
  • Don’t assume you understand. In your own words, restate or paraphrase what you heard—both the ideas and emotions.
  • Examples:

    “Sounds like you are feeling overwhelmed.”

    “What I heard you say is that you have 100 pages to read for philosophy, and you are overwhelmed. Have I got it right?”


3. Be ready to help change language from "demands" to "choices."


Help your college student change “have to” language to “I choose to…because” language.

Language choices affect attitudes and motivation. “Most people are depressed by Victim talk—'have to' statements—and energized by Creator talk—'choose to' statements.” (Downing)

“'I have to' read 100 pages in my philosophy book” becomes 'I choose to' read 100 pages in my philosophy book 'because' I want to participate in our class discussion on Monday and learn more about Plato.”


4. Become a "reality check."

Can your son really accomplish all of his choices from Strategy 2? For example, is he working too many hours, taking too many courses, participating in too many extracurricular activities, expecting too many A’s?

Is your daughter wisely prioritizing to accomplish classroom success, especially given that the first semester in college includes more challenges and adjustments than she will experience in the next 2-5 years of study?


5. Be ready to encourage.

You have an opportunity to encourage your college student by calling attention to the “big picture” of her life.

Anticipate the areas of college life that most likely have the potential to challenge your son and recall several relevant memories when he overcame these past challenges.

Overwhelmed freshman are probably not thinking rationally or confidently about themselves, but you can provide both reason and support.

Prepare yourself to remind your daughter of past successes and lessons learned.


 6. Brainstorm an Action Plan.


Based upon the choices and the prioritizing accomplished in Steps 2 and 3, help your college student to consider what small step he can take towards accomplishing a task.

Now is the time in the conversation to focus upon solutions.


If your daughter is anxious about a writing assignment, suggest that she go to the library for an hour to look up resource materials, see a Reference Librarian for help, or visit the Writing Center to discuss her thesis and essay organization with a tutor.

If your son seems overwhelmed with homework, remind him that studying in the library in-between classes results in greater understanding and increased retention than night time study.

If your daughter says that she does not understand her college reading, ask her if a college reading class was recommended. If so, encourage her to enroll in it. The demands for reading college textbooks are much different from high school expectations, and the SWC reading courses are designed with this as their central focus. You may also tell her to write in the margins of the textbooks. A great deal of research supports text annotation as an excellent reading comprehension strategy. If she isn't sure how to do this, encourage her to take the "College Success Skills" course.

If your son is having trouble with a professor, suggest that he meet with the professor one-on-one as soon as possible to discuss any issues. For suggestions, read the "Know How to Talk with Your Professors" section under College Expectations.

Remind your college student that there are many SWC campus resources available and to contact the office that best addresses his needs. Information can be found on the college web site:

If you think that your daughter needs to discuss any issue confidentially and objectively, Student Services provides counseling services. Suggest that she make an appointment.


7. Help your child keep the dream of college success.

Your child entered college with a dream and hopes for the future. Talk together about these goals.

Ask her what she wants to accomplish when she graduates.

What career sparks his hopes and interest?

Where does she want to be in five years?

What does a college education mean to him?

Then help your child see that these dreams may be possible if college studies become her priority, is she seeks help when studying becomes difficult. Support him and encourage him. On graduation day, you all will smile with pride at what you have done—together.


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Sources Referenced for Steps 2-6:
Downing, Skip. Facilitator’s Manual for On Course: Strategies for Creating Success in College and in Life. 4th edition. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2005.
Off to College, A Guide for College Bound Students. Ed. Jane Leslie Dees. Montgomery, Alabama: Off to College, 2005.
Smith, Donald C., and Virginia N.Gordon. A Family Guide to Academic Advising. Columbia: National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, 2003.
Prepared by the Faculty of the Academic Resource Center, Ohio Dominican University, Columbus, Ohio, spring semester, 2005

This site was created and is maintained by Barbara J. Speidel, SWC Academic Success Center Coordinator. @ Barbara J. Speidel

The ASC logo was created by Andrew C. Rempt. @ Andrew C. Rempt

Southwestern College