College is a time of transition for students but also brings transition for family units.
For parents who were already divorced or separated, you may have some systems that you created, and some of you may need to process relationship transition during your student’s academic career. Visiting campuses may have provided some initial perspective on the conversations and experiences that were in your future, but once your student is on campus, changing family dynamics and events require thoughtful consideration. By focusing on a few key tasks, you can best support your student’s success and well-being. The most important thing you can do for each event is to communicate, engage, and respect your students’ autonomy.
Orientation and college drop-off may be a family’s first experience in navigating their divorce or separation. The most important item to accomplish in anticipation of this weekend is to talk with your student about communication and permissions. Students can share information with whomever they desire and indicate this on their FERPA forms. FERPA can apply to student conduct/life, accounts, financial aid, and other university matters and oftentimes each of those categories has forms specific to their department. Your student and anyone who is paying for college should be involved in a conversation about financial aid, appointing a guarantor, and how additional costs (books, travel, and spending money) will be allocated.
Many universities offer summer or pre-orientation sessions in person and online. If you have a contentious relationship with an ex-spouse this is a good way for all involved family members to hear and obtain the same information while maintaining a boundary for safety or mental health. Have your student investigate FERPA forms permissions and communicate what forms are important for one or both parents to be included on. Aim to have these conversations before you arrive for the in-person orientation.
Family, siblings, and grandparents’ weekends are a fun way for your students to engage with their family members during their college experience. Before you register, schedule some time with your student to find out what type of time commitment they have for the weekend and what things they would like to do with you or your ex-spouse. If you have an amicable relationship with your ex-spouse or blended family, planned family weekend activities are a great way to relieve pressure for everyone. Attending a sporting event, concerts, and theatre are good ways for everyone to engage in support of a student without them having to choose one family or the other. When purchasing tickets, give the money and headcount to your student and let them register so that they have everyone sitting in a comfortable place and you don’t have to worry about the financial entanglement with your former family member. If you can’t come to an agreement about participation, sending a care package on that weekend helps them to feel like you are there for support and engagement without putting them in the position to mediate.
Commencement is the culmination of the college experience and can have heightened emotions similar to drop off. Your student has reached the end of their education and at this point development of their autonomy is of utmost importance. Communicate with them about commencement ticket numbers and celebrations. Many institutions do limit their ticket allotment for students, so if need be, remind your student that it is ok to prioritize their birth parents and then plan for separate celebrations with extended family. Commencement days are long and can entail varied weather. This might be a good opportunity for some family members to watch the live stream and then join a celebration. Finding time to have one family celebrate with breakfast and another celebrate with dinner is an amazing way to have everyone share in the festivities but respect the space for your student to enjoy the day without tension.
Reach out when your student needs help. Many colleges and universities work hard to provide an inclusive experience for families and understanding for students. Look to your office for Parent and Family programming, Health and Counseling centers, and Student Life office professionals if you need additional assistance in navigating events.
Your priority is your student and these transitions can be painful or joyful but by continuing to prioritize their autonomy, communicate and engage in ways that they desire you are providing the support that they ultimately need. By thinking through these strategies you are continuing to teach them healthy boundaries and self-care which will serve them well as they continue as emerging adults.