By Amy Johnson
Special to the Los Angeles Times
Your pride and joy has gone off to college and won't return your phone calls. How should you handle it?
If you have a newly minted college freshman joining 1.7 million students in the class of 2013, one of the best pieces of advice I can give you is to warm up your thumbs and start texting. A phone call may be a while in coming, but a text message could get a response in 30 seconds. Better yet, long before that, talk face to face with your students about your expectations and theirs.
As part of the off-to-college preparation, many of you parents have been burying yourselves in the logistical details of your kid's going to college - opening joint bank accounts, buying extra-long sheets, setting up health insurance - but you also need to address the emotional impact you'll face. And if there are younger siblings who will remain at home, they need your help with the transition too.
I often hear parents say they feel pressured to wait for the "right moment" to talk with their son or daughter, and the rest of the family, about everything they're feeling. If you do that, it will never happen. Pick a time today and start the conversation. It's okay to acknowledge your fears, your sense of loss, maybe even a bit of envy. Putting the worry and excitement into words can make the change easier.
The actual move-in day on campus can be a whirlwind of activity and an emotional roller coaster. Let the day be about your student and his or her transition into college life. At most colleges, the move-in day and week of orientation events are an important time for students to become immersed in the campus community. So think twice about how long you stay around after the "drop-off."
In the weeks ahead, parents should also be prepared to be flexible - and patient - when it comes to all manner of communication. After 18-odd years of regular progress checks - over the dinner table every night or in formal meetings with teachers - you may find that college updates aren't flowing your way. Even report cards, student bills and other correspondence are sent to the student unless other arrangements are made.
Be ready to weather a real range of emotion from campus. When the phone does ring, it's likely to be at the highest highs and the lowest lows in your student's life. Celebrate the good days and don't be derailed by the bad ones. Often, what was a big deal yesterday - a bad grade on an exam, or a breakup - will have blown over in 24 hours.
You have spent the last 18 years preparing your sons and daughters to be responsible, self-reliant individuals. But you can sometimes undermine those efforts when they run into challenges. Show your children that you trust them to handle the personal freedoms and to make good choices. Hold them accountable for doing so. When they get stuck, remind them to reach out to their campus support networks: resident assistants, faculty and staff, tutoring and counseling services, and student affairs leaders, just to name a few.
College is a time of independence and exploration. Understand that the person you drop off in August or September will have experienced many changes by the time you see him or her at parents weekend or the next holiday break. Be flexible, encourage this growth and maturation - and keep up a dialogue no matter what. When students return home for the first time, take the opportunity to revisit expectations regarding your "house rules," and their roles and responsibilities now that they are no longer at home full time.
I recently had a parent tell me that during her son's winter break from college, she stopped for coffee after a movie, only to find her son in a panic about why she was so late - and demanding to know why she hadn't called to check in. The mother laughed and admitted she'd made a mistake by not calling, but said, "Now you know how it feels." She told me it spurred one of the best conversations they've ever had about their house rules - that "these aren't parent-to-child demands but things you all do out of respect for one another."
Amy Johnson, associate dean of student affairs at the University of Southern California, oversees orientation programs for new students at the university.