From the desk of the McGill Parents Association…

From the desk of the McGill Parents Association…

Survival tips for empty nesters and first timers alike

The add-drop deadline has come and gone and students should now have a set class schedule and a good grasp of their course load. They’ve signed up for various student clubs, joined intramural sports teams and have a variety of social engagements they plan on fulfilling. The stress of a new semester and a new environment for students who have just started at McGill slowly seems to be dwindling.

So how are you parents doing?

During Residence Move-In weekend, I came across parents and their freshmen sons and daughters in nearby malls and on campus, and the tension was palpable. The stress of recent decisions, all the details to take care of in so little time, and the imminent separation appeared to affect everyone, consciously or otherwise. Some students showed exasperation that brought me back to my own teenage years leading me to reflect that, eventually, they’d look back on this time and realize they’d been harder than necessary on the ones who had their best interest at heart. Others showed signs of anticipation regarding the independence they’d travelled so far to acquire and were clearly eager for this new chapter of their lives to begin. In either case, these budding adults did not seem to realize what it meant for their parents to see them leave the nest and therefore could not bring them much comfort in words or gestures.

More and more, parents get highly involved in their student’s university admission process, preparation for the move to a new town and even, course selection, and find themselves drained and sometimes disheartened come September. Not unlike what we experience after the realization of an important project to which we dedicate ourselves fully and totally in every last detail until its completion. When it’s done, we feel relieved and proud, but we also experience a drop in our energy levels making it hard to tackle the next challenge. It’s sometimes the feeling of being left without a challenge of as great breadth that makes it hard to get back on track. Either way, it’s not the easiest of feelings to overcome.

Additionally, students who have recently left home to start university are usually quite wrapped up in their new life and obligations and are not necessarily thinking of calling home or keeping in touch. They certainly aren’t thinking about checking in on you! When they call, it’s often with a concern or to let you know there’s a balance on their fee account that you can pay directly online using your own user name and ID.

You’ve made it through the hardest part, now you can take on a new role that has less to do with the head coach and more with the strength trainer. To get through this transition period successfully, here are a few tips that may help you avoid the feeling of being right back in the midst of a teenage relationship, sitting by the phone waiting for a call or that long weekend invitation that’s late to come.

Tip #1: Set a liberal contact schedule. Your son or daughter is adjusting to a new environment, new digs, a new roommate, a considerable work load all the while learning to live independently for the first time. They are also making new friends and enjoying new responsibilities. It can prove to be a lot for a young adult, but it often is their first big challenge and they want to take ownership of it. To prevent adding to their to-do list and to keep that phone call a pleasant one, set a contact schedule that suit both you and your student. It should not bind either of you to the phone or make it hard to attend activities or to sleep in. It might be touching base on Sunday nights at 7, or every second Tuesday when your favorite student doesn’t have that afternoon lab – let them suggest a time and frequency and remember they might feel uncomfortable suggesting to tone it down, so they might need you to be the reasonable one.

Tip #2: Stick to it. Once that contact schedule is determined, observe it and do not deviate unless there’s an emergency. Some students might feel comfortable exchanging quick emails here and there but others will feel as though they’re constantly asked to report, whatever the nature of the exchange. Take hints when they are given. .

Tip #3: Listen to their concerns. Remember what it was to be a teen or young adult… Some things that now seem trivial felt so overwhelming then! If your student calls to share a concern or problem, listen to what they have to say and ask questions that will help you better understand their distress and the context. Give advice when asked, be a source of information. But resist the impulse to make their problems your own or, worse, to try and solve them yourself. Help them come to a solution of their own.

Tip #4: Give it 24 hours. In a situation of crisis, big or small, it’s hard to remain calm, mostly when you are far away, unable to provide help in person. When your student’s life is not under threat, the best you can do is to listen. And the best you can do for your own sake is to check in the next day (yes, contrary to tip #2 wisdom!) to see what the last 24 hours brought. Chances are your son or daughter felt much better after venting to mom and dad and was then in a better frame of mind to look for solutions. They just might not realize you were unable to sleep last night and spent every waking hour searching for solutions, and therefore might not give you the appropriate update.

Tip #5: Lead the horse to water. Providing advice and support is the role of every parent, but it’s important to let your son or daughter do the work whether it comes to handling problems or achieving a goal of any kind. Resolving conflicts, whether in an academic environment or a personal one, is an important step toward becoming an independent adult. Your student will benefit at least as much from the challenge of coming up with their own solutions as they will from your advice when they turn to you for guidance.

Tip #6: Trust them. So your son or daughter says they’re studying hard for that upcoming midterm but you have a strong inkling they’re in fact out with friends more often than not. Well, that may be. It might be difficult to do so, but if you don’t always trust what they tell you, you have to trust their judgment in making decisions. You’ve spent their childhood giving them the right tools to do so, after all. Now you have to encourage them to keep the lines of communications open by treating them as adults. They will return the favor. Keep in mind that, though they may make a small mistake now, the fact that they do might very well prepare them to make the right decisions when it really matters in the future.

Tip #7: Turn to us or to our online communities for guidance. You may find yourself in a situation where you’d like to provide guidance to your son or daughter but are not aware of the resources available at McGill to assist your student. This is a good time to call or write us for advice. You can also visit our online portal for parents to learn about the resources at your student disposal. Helping your student find which door to knock on when in need is often the best help you can provide. You can also turn to other McGill parents for advice on situations they might have encountered before you by joining one of our McGill Parents Facebook groups.

Relevant articles you may be interested in:

Essay: My daughter is leaving for university and I’m a wreck (David Gillett for the Globe and Mail)
Are you empty nesters now, too? (Marney Beck for

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