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Parenting Revisited: Changing Parenting Styles for the College Years

“Our son has always been an accomplished student and we’ve worked well together. Lately this has changed. He tells us he’s concerned about his grades and has become increasingly down on himself. We try to help but really don’t know what to do—we’ve never been in this situation with him before and he’s not responding to us the way he does when things are going better. What’s going on and what can we do?”

Dancing shows are very popular these days and my dancing IQ has seen quite a boost. I can now spot cha-cha, contemporary jazz, and crunk styles with little effort. When we think about the complexity inherent in the relationship between parent and student, they can, in ways, be characterized as different dance styles (with partners knowing their role and following particular guidelines for what to expect over the course of the dance). For example, the researcher Diana Baumrind sought to encapsulate some of this complexity by defining a three-part typology of “parenting styles” based on the focus of parental attention (parent/family vs. child) and how power is managed: 1. Authoritarian (parent/family focus; power in hands of parent); 2. Permissive (child focus; power in hands of child); and 3. Authoritative (flexible focus; power held by parent but given to child when deemed appropriate). These styles provide guidelines as to who leads and how the relationship is structured. Of the three styles, the Authoritative is generally considered to be the most effective because decisions and responses are based more on situations encountered than on the presence (or absence) of set rules or role definitions.

Prior to starting college, students usually have a good sense of the prevailing parental styles in force at home and, despite occasional power struggles and conflicts, find a common ground that works. When students start college, however, the rhythm and flow of the relationship sometimes changes. Academic struggles are one such example that affects students and parents alike. Students used to earning “A” grades can become more anxious or depressed if they start earning “C” grades or worse, and parents may not know how to respond in ways that are effective and supportive. Once smooth, reliable responses become replaced with awkwardness and toes getting stepped upon.

If this happens, what should you do? One perspective is to become aware of your preferred parenting style and allow yourself to recognize that you may need to make adaptations in response to changing circumstances. For example, if you tend to have a Permissive style, it may be important to learn the value of being more Authoritative. Changing styles can be challenging, but it is important to remember not to do it alone. You and your student can reach out to others who may have had experience dealing with your kind of situation. Like learning a new dance, changes will require practice, patience, and persistence but things work themselves out. Resources could be other parents, Parent Program staff, academic advisers, or counselors at the two mental health centers on campus.

Challenging, novel situations can be scary and unsettling for parents when faced with an uncertain outcome. This said, they can also be opportunities for the discovery of latent or hidden capacities; remember to be open to the emergence of these hidden gems. 

By Scott Slattery, Director of Learner Development, Medical School

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