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Kim Leisey, Ph.D., is the Associate Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). She is the co-creator of CollegePower, a program that adapts Kidpower skills and concepts for college student programs. She is also a Kidpower Center Director and Instructor for the Chesapeake and Potomac Center, as well as a member of the Board. 

See also: CollegePower for Students: Take Charge of Your Own Safety

This New Stage of Life Means New Joys and New Dangers

Every year, I see thousands of parents going through the bittersweet experience of sending their children to live away from home for the very first time. If you are the parent of a new college student, feeling both excited for your child and worried is normal. You want your child to be successful in school – to be safe – and to be happy. It’s possible that your memories of your own adventures in learning to become an independent adult are now sources of anxiety. What if your child does the same things that you did? Will she or he survive?

Most likely, you have worked very hard to be able to send your child to college and you want him or her to make the most of this time to get an excellent education as well as to develop new social skills. You hope that you’ve made the right choice about where to send your child to college. You want to know that your child is working hard in college as well as having fun.

And most of all, you want your child to be safe from harm.

The reality is that this new stage of life offers new joys and new dangers for your child. A young person who has been living at home and is now living away cannot become an independent adult without making some mistakes. Most of these mistakes can be fixed, but a few have devastating results.

Here are some things you can do as a parent to help protect your child from harm as well as lay the foundation for a strong positive relationship with your child as an independent adult.

Know the Facts

Students are more likely to be vulnerable to having problems during the first few weeks of college. They are living in a new environment, developing new social groups, and experimenting with being responsible for themselves. This means that they are more likely to make mistakes.

To have a realistic picture of the potential dangers, read the crime statistics for the college your child is going. In the US, these statistics are available on-line. Compared to many places, most college campuses are relatively safe. However, college is not a sanctuary. Just like any community with lots of people, there are likely to be some crimes.

In the same way that you would check out a neighborhood before buying a home, check out a school’s record before making a final decision. How safe is this campus? How many thefts are there?  What’s the neighborhood like in the surrounding community?

How many students are living on campus? Is there a large sports program? What about an active Greek system? Depending on your child’s interests, these factors might offer advantages, but can also cause problems.

For college students, 90% of assaults involve alcohol or drug use and more than 90% involve someone the student knows rather than a stranger. According to the US Department of Justice, 75% of all sexual assaults involve someone familiar. At college, many people seem much more known than they actually are, perhaps because of taking a class together, studying together, or being the friend of a roommate.

As a parent, your job is to balance your own anxiety and worry about potential dangers with your college student’s need for independence. Make sure your child knows the facts, and make plans together for addressing potential concerns without giving in to the temptation to lecture or hover.

Support Your Child in Creating a Safe Community at College

The best way for your college student to be safe is to create a strong community of support at college.

If this is your child’s first time living away from home in a new community, help to find good resources on and off campus. Encourage friendships and show an interest in who these people are. Find and meet other adults (professors, counselors, resident director, dean of students, etc.) your child can go to with problems. Encourage your child to keep developing a strong foundation of personal safety and self-defense skills by taking workshops and classes.

Create a clear safety plan for how to handle potential problems. Rather than lecturing, raise concerns and ask your child how he or she might handle the situation. Focus on how to use and get hold of the resources on campus when they are needed. Most schools have a counseling center, public safety/police department, dean of students, and health/wellness center.

Here are some sample “What If” problems:

  • What if you are at a party, and the friends you came with get intoxicated?
  • What if you go somewhere with acquaintances and suddenly you don’t know where you are and feel really unsafe?
  • What if a campus event is starting to get really rowdy, so people are being aggressive with each other?
  • What if you see someone with a weapon at school or at an off campus party?

Ask, “If you see this problem, what would you do?” If your college student gets annoyed, say, “I know you know how to handle most situations and that you think this is unlikely to happen. But mental preparedness is important to your safety. For my peace of mind, I’d like to make sure we are on the same page about this.”

Be a Safe Person to Come To

As a parent, you can be your child’s most important safety net when things go wrong – IF your child feels safe coming to you for help. Be a good listener even about things that might be controversial. In my experience,  most college students do not want to upset their parents and are more likely to avoid telling them about problems if they are afraid their parents will get angry, disappointed, or hurt by their choices.

For example, suppose your college student mentions something that is totally against your values, such as, “I got drunk with my friends last night and I feel awful. I feel terrible about how I behaved.”

This is an opportunity to learn how to be a really excellent actor by feeling very upset, but acting in a way that is supportive to your child. Take a breath, think about what you truly most want for your child, which is to learn how to take charge of her or his own safety and well being, and say with all your heart, “I am so glad you are telling me this.”

Listen to your child without sounding or acting upset. Reflect your understanding by repeating what your child is telling you, without judgment. Show empathy by guessing in a supportive way what your child might be feeling. For example, “I am wondering if you might be feeling embarrassed and upset with yourself, as well as unhappy about the choices you made.”

Ask supportive questions that show trust in your child’s ability to learn and make wiser choices such as, “What have you learned from this and what might you do differently next time?”

Remind your child of resources on campus that might be useful, such as the counseling or health center.

Take action if you think that the situation is potentially dangerous.  If you are not sure whom to call, try the Student Affairs office. Some schools have hotlines where problems can be reported anonymously.  For example, suppose you learn that your son’s roommate has a knife and other weapons in his room.  This is not a problem that can be ignored. You can encourage your son to make an anonymous report, but make a report yourself. Most campuses have the skills to address problems like this in a proactive fashion that does not reveal where the information came from.

Enjoy the Times Together and Stay Connected During the Times Apart

When her own children grew up and left home, Irene told them, “I want you to enjoy your life wherever you live, doing what is right for you, but I also want to make sure that we stay connected. You never need to worry about what to get me for my birthday or Mother’s Day or any other occasion. The ONLY gift I want from you is that, even though your life might be very busy, you keep making times to talk long distance and keep finding times to have fun together doing things that we both enjoy.”

Make a realistic plan that works for both of you about staying in touch with your college student. Is it a Skype or phone call once a week? Is it text messaging every couple of days? Be aware that the child who used to respond to you several times a day might need the space to be in touch much less often. Keep reaching out to your child and don’t take a failure to respond personally. College is a time of great intensity and talking with you is often not your child’s top priority.

Make sure that family times when you are all together are planned in a way that is fun for everyone. This might mean being flexible about schedule and activity and willing to let go of some traditions in order to meet different tastes and needs. This might mean you’re traveling once in a while to visit your student instead of only having your student traveling to come home to you.

As parents, the best ways you can help your college students to be successful are to keep showing and telling them that:

  • You want them to choose the right path for them, which you understand might change over time. You want them to follow their own dreams, not yours.
  • They are incredibly important to you, no matter what mistakes they make.
  • They can tell you anything without losing your love or respect.
  • You might need to set boundaries if they make choices that you cannot support, but you will never stop loving them.
  • You are committed to helping them get help if they need it.
  • They do not need to take care of you. You miss them, but are also enjoying your own life tremendously.

 Additional Resources

The following low-cost books are also available to help learn and teach emotional safety and self-defense skills:

The Fullpower Safety Comic book offers entertaining comics illustrating many of the emotional safety techniques discussed in the article above and more that we recommend for teens and adults.

The Relationship Safety Skills book is a domestic, dating, and interpersonal violence prevention handbook, written to be used by victims and potential victims of relationship violence, as well as the support people in their lives.

One Strong Move: Cartoon-Illustrated Self-Defense Lessons provides step-by-step directions for how to use self-defense strategies and skills to protect yourself from an emotional or physical assault – and how to teach these skills to others.

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Published: August 20, 2013   |   Last Updated: September 20, 2017