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As a higher education administrator whose work focuses on creating college student support systems, I’ve experienced the power of parental and familial roles for young adults in college.  In my work, I often revisit Sanford’s theory of challenge and support, which is the idea that when college students are challenged greatly, they must receive support that matches the level of challenge.

The essence of this theory is that students grow or develop through experiencing internal or external challenges.  This means that as parents and family members, support is healthy but too much is detrimental.  Take, for instance, the experience of living in college housing. According to The College Board, 40 percent of full-time college students at public colleges and 64 percent at private colleges live on-campus which is a great reason for you and your student to apply these techniques to navigating college systems together.

  1. Define your position for your student.  It’s helpful to show that you care as well as to be clear that it’s up to your student to learn about their environment.  Encourage your student to lead the process through problem-solving on their own, with your moral support. Remind them that learning their environment takes time and is best done by immersing themselves in their community.
  2. Encourage your student to use the support systems closest to them. If the problem is a housing or roommate issue, your student should start by seeking their Resident Advisor (RA) who is an upper-class peer leader.  RAs have received training in emotional intelligence and mediating interpersonal community issues.  The RA can listen, connect your student with appropriate resources, and maybe even help them mediate their issue.
  3. College policies and practices are in place for good reason.  For example, if your student is experiencing a roommate conflict, your student may not be able to change their roommate instantly.  It’s likely that your student’s college will want your student to go through the procedures in place and exhaust all options for support and resources before being reassigned to a new room and/or a new roommate.  An example of this may include a roommate mediation, drafting a roommate agreement, enacting the roommate agreement, and reporting any violations of the roommate agreement for administrative action.
  4. It’s also important to know and use college resources that specialize in subject matter experts.  Most college campuses offer the following (click to view examples): UCLA counseling, UC Berkeley housing/academic accommodations, and Stanford financial aid.  Resources like these are growing both in terms of availability and access.  Most importantly, these resources are primarily available to your student at no too little cost as they are often tied into fees already paid.

With this in mind, allow your student the space to navigate their college experience as a young adult learning the way of the world.  In the book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, Julie Lythcott-Haims boldens the concept of self-efficacy from the field of human psychology developed in the 1970s by psychologist Albert Bandura who states that self-efficacy means having the belief in abilities to complete tasks, reach goals, and manage situations.  Therefore, the greatest lesson college students can learn is to believe in their abilities to navigate college systems so they too can navigate the world.


Born in the San Gabriel Valley but raised in Moreno Valley, CA, Dr. Lisa Caldera is a first-generation college student from a low-income family background. She became the first person in her family to earn a doctorate and dedicated her research to undocumented college student experiences. She serves as the Senior Associate Dean leading a team of case managers who oversee crisis response, support, and resources for all Stanford undergraduates.