Almost all first-year students, no matter what their age, are connected to other family members. Your family might be a spouse and children, a partner, or your parents and siblings. The relationships that you have with family members can be a source of support throughout your college years, and it’s important to do your part to maintain those relationships.
Can marriage, parenting, or other family responsibilities coexist with being a college student? The answer, of course, is yes, although linking all these identities—student, spouse, parent, child, grandchild—will not be easy. If you are married or in a long-term relationship, with or without children, you will need to become an expert at time management. If you come from a cultural background that values family relationships and responsibilities above everything else, you will also have to work to balance your home life and college. In some cultures, if your grandmother or aunt needs help, that might be considered just as important—or more important—than going to class or taking an exam.
Negotiating the demands of college and family can be difficult. However, most college instructors will be flexible with requirements if you have genuine problems with meeting a deadline because of family obligations. But it’s important that you explain your situation; don’t expect your instructors to be able to guess what you need. As the demands on your time increase, it is important that you talk with family members to help them understand your role and responsibilities as a student.
Occasionally, deciding to go to college can create conflict within a family. Partners and children can be threatened and intimidated if you take on a new identity and set of responsibilities. Financial pressures are likely to put an extra strain on your relationship, so both you and your partner will have to work hard at paying attention to each other’s needs. Be sure to involve your family members in your decision to go to college. Bring them to campus at every opportunity and let them read your papers and other assignments. Finally, it’s very important to carve out time for your partner and your family just as carefully as you schedule your work and your classes.
Whether you live on campus or at home, your relationship with your parents will never be quite the same as it was before. You might find that your parents hover over you and try to make decisions on your behalf, such as your major, where and how much you work, and what you do on weekends. In fact, some instructors and administrators have coined the term “helicopter parents” to describe parents who exhibit these hovering behaviors. You also might find that it’s hard for you to make any decisions without talking to your parents first. Although communication with your parents is important, don’t let them make all your decisions. Your college or university will help you draw the line between what decisions should be yours alone and what decisions your parents should help you make.
Many college students are living in blended families, so more than one set of parents are involved in their college experience. If your father or mother has remarried, you might have to negotiate with both family units.
So how can you have a good relationship with your parents during this period of transition? A first step in establishing a good relationship with them is to be aware of their concerns. Parents are often worried that you’ll harm yourself in some way. They might still see you as young and innocent, and they don’t want you to make the same mistakes that they might have made or experience situations that have been publicized in the media. They might be concerned that your family or cultural values will change or that you’ll never really come home again, and for some students, that is exactly what happens.
Remember, though, that parents generally mean well. Most of them love their children even if their love isn’t always expressed in the best way. They have genuine concerns that you will understand even better if and when you become a parent yourself. To help your parents feel more comfortable with your life in college, try setting aside regular times to update them on how things are going for you. Ask for and consider their advice. You don’t have to take it, but it can be useful to think about what your parents suggest, along with the other factors that will help you make decisions.
Not every family is ideal. If your family is not supportive, find other people who can help you create the family you need. With your emotional needs satisfied, your reactions to your real family will be much less painful.
What should you do if your family falls apart? Divorce happens, and sometimes it happens when a son or daughter goes to college. It can be hard to proceed with life as usual when the family foundation seems to be cracking under you, but remember that your parents are adults. If your father and mother decide to go their separate ways, it’s not your fault, and you should not feel responsible for their happiness.
Even if you’re successful in determining appropriate boundaries between your life and your parents’ lives, it’s hard not to worry about what’s happening at home. If you find yourself in the midst of a difficult family situation, seek help from your campus’s counseling center or from a chaplain.