How do you keep parenting your sort-of adult while helping foster growth? We asked Bettina Bohle-Frankel, MD, a psychiatrist who has counseled students at Northwestern University for 22 years.

By Meredith Heagney
empty nest


Talk it out before college

It’s important to start conversations with your child about some of the challenges that might await them in college. For some, it’s being away from home or having to share a room for the first time; other kids go nuts when faced with unlimited cafeteria food or lack of a curfew. 

Parents can help their children problem-solve in advance, Dr. Bohle-Frankel says. 

“I would suggest before you even come to college to have a few talks about health and safety issues,” she says. Say to them: “You’re going to be tempted in a lot of ways. How do you want to handle that?” Then be prepared to be an open-minded sounding board.

Start practicing independence in high school

A lot of kids are used to mom or dad smoothing every rough transition. When they go to college, having to fix their own mistakes is jarring. High school is a good time to let them handle their own business and mess up if need be; that means setting their own alarm for school, doing their own laundry and remembering that their English paper is due Tuesday without reminders from you. 

“It’s so that they can fail while they still have you around to manage the fall-out,” Dr. Bohle-Frankel says. 

Be honest about drinking and drug use

Talk to your child about the fact that they’ll likely encounter alcohol and drugs frequently in college. And keep the conversation going once they’re at school; if the child is open to it, ask him or her about the party scene and how they’re handling those situations. 

“I don’t think parents should lie about what their preference is. The preference is that they follow the law and are abstinent, right?” Dr. Bohle-Frankel says. Still, if it was her kid, she'd add: “But if you cannot do that, you need to be very responsible around this.” The bottom line: Kids will experiment, so it's naive to act as if they won't. But the risks need to be conveyed clearly and calmly.

Be an evangelist for campus resources—but be on call if needed

University campuses are goldmines for help, whether you need free tutoring for chemistry, treatment for a sore throat or mental health services. Get familiar with the offerings at your child’s school and encourage him or her to use them. 

“If your child is vulnerable or has struggled with mental health issues in the past, don’t send them away without help,” Dr. Bohle-Frankel says. For example, consider setting them up with campus mental health care before they get to school. 

Deal with your own anxiety and prepare to give some space

Having a child go away to college isn’t easy for parents, and it’s important to examine how you’re handling the transition. Consider forming an informal support group with other moms of freshmen or seek therapy to process the experience. 

“It’s always important to check with yourself, is it my own anxiety?” Dr. Bohle-Frankel says. 

Parents’ anxiety can exacerbate the difficulty of transitioning into college, she adds, because kids worry about their parents’ worry. Or, as one college freshman put it, “It doesn’t feel like true freedom if your mom is still anxiously waiting to hear from you, you know?” 

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