Parents rights (and wrongs)

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By Kate Stone Lombardi, guidance counsellor

Parents walk a delicate line when their children leave for university. No one wants to be a helicopter parent who hovers and swoops in at the first sign of trouble. But universities increasingly fear that parental interference prevents students from becoming independent, resilient adults.

These pointers can help parents cope with a few common issues.

 1. Dealing with the ‘dumping monster’

This means students may call home and dump all their problems on their parents. If there’s a roommate issue, parents are urged to stay out of it. More than any other generation, today’s children are used to having their own room, TV, iPod and phone. Sharing a cramped space is not something most have experience with.

“If, at the first sign of conflict, parents call the residence or university, students don’t learn about negotiating conflict,” says Mark Thompson, director of counselling and psychological services at Colgate University.

2. Ask the alcohol question

“One conversation we do want parents to have with their kids is about alcohol and drugs,” says Beverly Low, dean of first-year students at Colgate. Parents should discuss their expectations with their children, about attending classes, drinking and driving, and study time versus social time.

 3. Why the report card never comes

Before universities started communicating electronically, grades were sent to the student’s home in the mail, and parents could intercept the envelope. That’s no longer the case. Still, there are ways for parents to see how their offspring are doing. Universities may share grades with parents who submit proof that the student is a dependent for tax purposes or if the student signs a release form.

But the quickest, easiest way to find out your child’s grades is to just ask.

4. The time to jump in

In 2002, the parents of Elizabeth Shin sued the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for $27 million. They said the university had failed to prevent their daughter’s apparent suicide by not informing the parents of her deteriorating psychological state.

The case opened the question of liability and students’ mental health. Universities have recently become more inclined to notify parents earlier when they perceive a student to be in trouble, says Gary Pavela, director of judicial programs at the University of Maryland at College Park and author of the book Questions and Answers on College Student Suicide: A Law and Policy Perspective. But parents need not wait for emergencies. If a child seems headed for danger—academic, emotional or physical—they must intervene.

“The goal for parents is finding the right balance,” Pavela says. “One extreme is hovering over them and micromanaging their life. The other extreme is assuming that a student, particularly on a large campus, is going to find a mentor or counsellor who is going to see them as whole person and understand the dynamics of their personality.”

“There is a role for parents to approach a dean or resident advisor,” Pavela adds, “not as a nuisance but with a team approach to working with a student who may be going through a crisis.”

5. Know where to find help

Parents should familiarize themselves with resources available at UBC, especially Student Health Services.