It will shortly be that time of year when ‘freshers’ arrive at university, almost certainly after a summer of mixed feelings. There may have been elation or disappointment over exam and coursework results, a scramble to reassess plans, or a confirmation of long-held ambitions. Anticipation, excitement, fear, hope, trepidation, confidence, doubt, eagerness – all of these emotions and more may have coursed through these young people about to embark on the next stage of their lives. A stage in which they will develop their independence, self-knowledge, and both academic and life skills. Parents, siblings, grandparents and the wider family will also be experiencing their own mixed feelings at the changes to come. This can also apply to established students (and their families and partners) as they progress through the levels of their course and increasing difficulty, and adjust to a university experience that feels quite different as a result of the pandemic. So what can we, the parents and family of university students, do to help?
My own children aren’t quite old enough to face this stage of life yet, but as a university lecturer and pastoral tutor I have supported many students – and the odd parent too! I recently surveyed students at my institution to help me understand what has challenged them during the pandemic, and what has helped them to persevere.
Nearly every student told me they worried about failing – something I witnessed even before the disruption of Covid-19, and the associated striving for perfection or procrastination that often accompanies this deep fear. They reported feeling stressful and anxious, overwhelmed and full of self-doubt. They also talked themselves down and lacked confidence in their academic abilities. Most of the challenges identified were self-generated barriers that stem from their own state of mind and beliefs, rather than external problems (though these figured too, with some students struggling to adjust to online learning, the isolation of lockdown, missing friends on campus and peer support).
However, all was not gloomy – most students exceeded their own expectations in their studies and maintained their well-being despite the perceived problems. In addition to help from the university, they said non-judgemental support from family and friends when things felt tough was hugely valuable.
So how can we, as parents, give our children the most empowering support even when they may be many miles away? In addition to practical help such providing a quiet study environment at home, helping financially, keeping in touch lightly, and reminding them that support is available through the university, you could try any or all of the following:
Helping by not helping
The first step, counterintuitively, may be to let go of the need to help. Or at least, to fix. We are programmed to protect our children, and keep them safe, but sometimes our natural desire to help those we love can hinder their development and create tensions in our relationship if we solve their problems rather than giving them the space to find solutions. Author, teacher and healer Rachel Naomi Remen suggests a better approach is to ask not how we can help them, but how we can serve them. She observes: “Helping is based on inequality; it is not a relationship between equals. When you help you use your own strength to help those of lesser strength … People feel this inequality. When we help we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity and wholeness.” Often, when we try to help (with love and the best of intentions) we deprive our children of the chance to try, possibly fail, and to learn from the experience. Being of service however recognises the other person – your grown-up child – as an equal with the ability, despite their tender years, to be resourceful and creative, to have the wit and strength to solve their own problems. Knowing that their parent believes in them gives them the self-belief to try, and to be proud of themselves in the process and more confident in their ability to cope when other challenges arise. This does not mean abandoning your child to their fate, but letting them know you are there for them with unconditional love and no judgement, that they can ask for and receive help when they genuinely do need it, but that you have faith they can make good decisions for themselves.
The coach Gretchen Remmers says that one of the biggest discoveries she has made in a career of helping clients is “almost all of the time knowing it’s not my place to give someone advice” and that includes her own university-age children. It’s a hard thing to resist – we’re personally invested in their success and happiness. And, after all, we are older than our children and have more experience of the world, so why would we let them make mistakes if we can save them the heartache? Well, because we are also denying them the chance to face challenges that feel scary, the opportunity to push out of their comfort zone and learn that beyond discomfort is the place where they grow. Also, the chance to fail well. Without risking failure one cannot think creatively enough to understand our issues, solve problems and come up with novel ideas. And while we may have loving intentions, we must also remember that our experiences of the world are different to our children’s and what worked for us may not for them. So unless advice is explicitly asked for it is more empowering, Remmers says, to listen empathetically instead.
When was the last time you felt truly listened to? That you had the undivided attention of someone who was fully invested in you? How did that feel? And how does it feel when you are talking to someone who you know is distracted and only half listening? Or who jumps in with their own story? Active listening is a hard skill to master – but incredibly empowering for those on the receiving end. Whether in person or on a call, try to focus fully on your child’s words and non-verbal language (body posture, facial expressions, tone of voice) without becoming distracted by your own inner monologue – your worries about them, things that trigger you, your desire to fix their problem, or other distractions. Coach and author Tara Mohr advises trying to really hear what they are saying without judgement, rather than your interpretation of their words. If you become aware that your attention is wandering, gently bring your focus back to them. An empathetic and empowering response might sound like: “Wow, that sounds really tough. What do you want to do?”
Getting comfortable with silence
When there is a lull in a conversation with young people (especially if time is limited and it feels imperative to reach a solution quickly) it can feel uncomfortable, and it’s tempting to fill the gap. But silence can be very powerful, allowing time for your child to process questions or prompts, reflect, and generate ideas and suggestions of their own. John Polemis advises coaches to welcome silence as ‘a container to be filled’ by their client and to take three deep, slow breaths before interrupting it. Give it a try and you may be surprised by what bubbles up.
Put them in touch with their superpowers
Your teenager may feel overwhelmed by the unfamiliar environment or workload, anxious about living independently, worried about money, their health or making friends. Coach and founder of Ollie and His Superpowers, Alison Knowles, describes all of these feelings and more as ‘superpowers’ – normal emotions experienced by all humans, which work together to allow us to function and live life fully. Sometimes, however, individual emotions such as anxiety can take over, drowning out the other emotions and creating an overwhelming feeling of being out of control. There’s lots of helpful advice on managing superpowers and bringing them back into sync through the Ollie website and social media platforms.
Claire Robertson, Ollie Coach
Claire Robertson is an Ollie Coach and NLP practitioner with a degree in psychology. She runs a private practice in the West Midlands, in the heart of Shropshire, working with children, young people and adults. Claire is also a university lecturer specialising in business, marketing and supporting students, has two children, and enjoys reading, crafts and walking.
To get in contact with Claire, email Claire.firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out more about Ollie and his Super Powers and how to become an Ollie Coach go to https://www.ollieandhissuperpowers.com/pages/about-us
Image: Jon Tyson, Unsplash