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Parents: 5 Things to Discuss with your Student Over Break!

Key Conversation Tips for Success!

Winter break is here and college students are heading home!  I remember this time in college so well. Driving home from La Salle University in Philadelphia in mid-December, exhausted from a week of caffeinated all-nighters. On one of those trips home I actually pulled into a rest stop on the Garden State Parkway and slept for 4 hours in my car.  

The break brings much relief to college students. Finals are over. No papers or lectures to attend. They get 3-4 weeks of comfort food, see friends from high school, and the chance to sleep in their own bed.  

And then... "THE QUESTION."

I remember being asked the question by my mother. Her timing was perfect. Usually it was minutes after unloading my car, checking the fridge, and slouching into the couch. I hated The Question. I knew it was coming and used all of my tricks to avoid it. Truly amazing that 5 words generate so much anxiety.

Mom: "How'd you do this semester?"

Me: "Ummmmmmmm, I did OK, I think." At that moment I wished to spend my winter break at that rest stop

It's short, simple, and to the point. An easy one to answer for students who crushed the semester. For those who didn't do so well, it's the question that has generated anxiety for weeks. Students tap into all of their avoidance strategies to steer clear of answering.  

Parent Take-Aways:

Parents often learn a lot about their college student from "The Question."  An number of challenges lead to subpar college performance: Test anxiety, undiscovered learning challenges, poor time management, ineffective study skills.  

Challenges in coping with adversity are common. Some students don't bother showing up to class or even dropped a few after a bad midterm grade. Many students get caught up in the party scene, experience depression for the first time, or didn't adjust well to college life.  

A major problem now is they waited 16 weeks to tell their parents and the financial cost is substantial. 

Student Anxiety:

Students generate thoughts and images of "THE QUESTION" and conversation that follows with their parents for weeks. For them, anxiety has peaked and is fueled by anticipation of parent reactions.

  1. Anticipation of their parent's immediate reaction to the news. I've counseled and coached hundreds of anxious students at the end of college semesters. Concerns about pending conversations range from, "They are going to be disappointed" to "They are going to flip out" to "They are going to kill me."
  2. Anticipation of their parent's decision about next semester. For students one major concern is the impact of their parent's decision on their social life. The thought of not returning campus is devastating to consider. "What will people think?" "I can't not graduate on time." "All my friends are going back."

Parent Anxiety:

Anxiety over a subpar or downright awful semester isn't reserved only for students. This time of year I consult daily with anxious parents deciding whether to send their student back for another try. Frustration about too much partying, misaligned priorities, and lack of communication dominate these conversations.

Of course, there is immense concern about the lost financial investment.

Parent: "Hey Dr. Joel, our son decided to blow $30,000 this past fall.  Can we schedule to see you?"

Naturally parents express concerns about sending their child back to school. "Will this happen again?" "What will she do differently?" "Should we let him go back?"

Questions like these are mulled over. Many kids make promises to change. "I'll go to the library everyday." "I won't drink or go to parties." "Please let me go back!!"

What's the right decision? Send them back or keep them home? Is it community college this spring and re-evaluate for the fall semester? Maybe he should find a job and pay us back?

Parents are challenged to sift through all kinds of questions and concerns. Plus, the decision doesn't come any easier when parents observe their kid's lack of effort to change over the winter break.

Parent: "Hi Dr. Joel. Yeah, my kid came home from his first semester of college. He sleeps all day, stays out all night with his friends, and spends NO time with family. His room is a wreck and his sister doesn't even know who he is. Oh, and everything he owns smells like a frat house. Any advice you can give us would be great."

Initiating the conversation with college students is difficult. Parents and students often clash on priorities and values. Usually it takes a series of conversations to understand perspectives and decide the best course of action. Commitment to clear communication is the overarching key to building solutions for their success. 


1. Be mindful of the range of feelings heading into the conversation! Anxiety, shame, frustration, anger, about the past semester and the decision to invest in the next one can lead to further arguments and disagreement. Use "I statements" when expressing feelings and take time to listen.  

2. Discuss the role of lifestyle. This is a critical yet challenging topic. More often peak performance is affected by lifestyle design, not lack of ability. Careful to avoid accusations like, "You drink too much" or "All you care about is partying with your friends." These often lead to kids avoid conversation and slow progress. While you may be right, they do not want to be told how to live their lives.   

3. Challenge them to create solutions. In general, real life problem solving skills are not a strength of college students. However, they are CRITICAL skills to develop before graduating from college. Encourage them to assess their past semester challenges and determine necessary lifestyle adjustments for success.

4. Include "INVESTMENT" in the conversation. A major challenge lies in differences in parent versus student perspective about priorities of the college investment. Defining student goals and accountability plans are key points to clarifying their role in the college investment.    

5. Go beyond the grade point average. Despite the anxiety, frustration, and concern about a lost semester the ability to develop resilience, increase coping confidence, and define opportunity in the midst of adversity are essential success skills. Help your student frame this experience as an opportunity for personal and professional development!  

Ready to develop a semester success plan?

Maximize Your Return on College Tuition FREE!

For a limited time I am offering a Free 30 min consultation to:

Discuss your most pressing issues when it comes to helping your child surpass the common pitfalls and excel this academic year.

This 30 min session is an opportunity to get a custom strategy to impact your child’s academic experience today!

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You can use the session as a soundboard to get answers to your most pressing questions.

Here’ are just a few of the topics other parents have used the Free consultation;

  • How to bounce back from a subpar semester or marking period
  • How to best help your first time college student
  • How to increase critical personal development, time management, and stress management skills
  • How to identify SPT’s (Success Prevention Traps)
  • How to increase self-awareness to maximize career readiness

We can cover these or any pressing issue you have right now to help your child soar this year!

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Dr. Joel Ingersoll, Ph.D., CMC helps college and high school students develop the character, resilience and success skills necessary to thrive in college and beyond. As President & Founder of Take On College, Dr. Joel empowers students to maximize their potential, college experience and return on tuition. Get a FREE copy of Dr. Joel’s Parent Handbook, “10 Ways to Help Your Child Succeed in College: The Non-Academic Secrets They Don’t Teach in Schools” Click here to download.

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