By Katherine Keith
When we dropped our second child off at college, we arrived late.
We hurriedly dragged her stuff to her
room, gave her a hug and a kiss and took off. The parents in the next room referred to us as
"Drop and Go Parents.” When we took our first child to college, I made her bed
for her, we helped her set up a bank account on campus, we spent the night
nearby, we introduced ourselves at the learning center and stopped off to say
hello (again) to her lacrosse coach. OK,
we were "Helicopter Parents.”
Why the difference? While
it is typical to be more relaxed with your second child, more than just first
child/second child was going on. Our
first child has a significant learning disability while our second does not. If your child has ADHD or a learning
disability and you have gotten to the point where your child is ready to go to
college, you know that no matter how hard your child has worked, you have had to
be there to support, facilitate, advocate, and — yes — intervene. It’s hard to let go of that!
However, in retrospect, our second, non-learning-disabled
child needed more support and acknowledgement of the difficulty of this big
step, and we inadvertently reinforced our first child’s anxiety by being overly
So, where is the happy middle between "Drop and Go” and
"Helicopter” parenting when your child reaches college — particularly if your
child has ADHD? It lies in continuing to
support, encourage and advise while resisting the urge to intervene unless the
circumstances call for intervention.
How do you gage if the circumstances call for
intervention? Ask yourself, "If I don’t
intervene, will the result of this problem be significantly life-changing or
life-threatening?” If the answer is no,
provide lots of support but do not intervene. If the answer is yes, then you must intervene.
(In this case, helicopter-parenting is
Let’s say your child tells you she got a "D” on her paper
because it was late, and might be failing the class. Is one bad grade going to have a devastating
effect on her future? No. So what do you do? When your child was in high school, you might
have scheduled a meeting with the teacher or contacted her case manager to make
sure the teacher understands your child’s challenges and need for
accommodations. But, you would have also
encouraged her to talk to her teacher herself, right?
Remember, you have been working with your child for years to
help develop his or her self-advocacy skills. Your role now is to remind your child of those
skills, and encourage her to use them. Ask
her, "What do you think might be
helpful?” and help her brain-storm some options, such as meeting with her
professor, scheduling appointments at the writing center, finding a study
partner and other ideas. Accept her
ideas and encourage her to put them to the test.
But what if your child is failing all of her classes? The
result of this will likely be being sent home and not being invited back. While this is traumatic and will make her
future more difficult, what could really
be dangerous is why this is
happening. It is time to intervene, but
you need to understand the underlying cause in order to intervene effectively.
Is she academically overwhelmed, taking too many courses for
which she is academically unprepared? You
can help her drop a class or two, arrange for a tutor or coach and contact the
learning center for advice.
Has she forgotten to take her meds and can’t focus? You can help by making sure she has her meds
and helping her come up with a reminder for taking them.
Is she spending her time "partying” with drugs or alcohol? Or is she depressed? Either of these situations can be
life-threatening. If you have any reason
to believe that either of these are the cause, contact the Student Counseling
Center as soon as possible. Twenty-five
percent of freshmen are clinically depressed during the year, and substance
abuse is everywhere. Most student
counseling centers will send someone to check on your child and arrange a
counseling appointment right away.
Fortunately most problems kids encounter their first year
are not life-threatening. So, listen, advise, cajole, coach, and encourage—all
things you have clearly done well before to help your child get to this point.
Keith was cofounder and Head of The Howard Gardner School, a school for bright,
creative, non-traditional learners, for a decade. She is currently working with
young people on their transition to college and independence through her
program, Great College Transitions.