Hey, Parents of New College Students: This Expert Advice Is Just for You

August 23, 2022
A man in a Virginia Dad t-shirt helps his son move a large box into a dorm

This UVA dad helped heft a mini-refrigerator into a suite at Gooch/Dillard House last week. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

Last year, UVA Today reached out to clinical psychologist Tim Davis for tips for parents of new college students. His advice was such a hit that we came back to him for more.

Davis teaches a popular course, “The Resilient Student; Transition, Thriving, and Leadership,” in the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. He is also a regular speaker at summer orientation, delivering his talk, “Raising a Resilient Student,” to parents. Here, in his own words, is his scholarly advice.

Stop Telling Your Kids What to Do

“So much of what is helpful to people really comes back to being an amazing listener. What people respond to most, even when they’re struggling with something hard – what’s most helpful is not telling them what to do. The scholarship says humans are preset to believe at our core that we’re good and competent and capable. What can get in the way of that is when loving, caring and well-intentioned people like parents deliver an indirect message – or sometimes a direct message – that their students are not capable and not strong and don’t have the assets that they need to be super happy and successful because parents keep telling people what to do.”

Listen, Listen, Listen

“Our jobs as loving parents and family members is to nurture the idea that humans, at their core, are good and capable. One of the ways that we do that is by becoming a really, really good listener, because when people feel listened to, they feel good. They like it. They want more of it, and they want to connect with you more. That’s part of how you draw people into your life.”

Tim Davis smiles at the camera

Clinical psychologist Tim Davis teaches a popular course in the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, “The Resilient Student: Transition, Thriving, and Leadership.” (Photo by John Robinson)

The Best Ways To Be the Best Listener

“I offer three ways to do that.

“Make summary statements. It’s just hearing what your young adult is saying to you and tracking it, being really interested in it, and then finding a way to encapsulate it into a summary or like the headline of an article. For example, ‘So, what I hear you saying is that things have been really stressful the first week of class.’ Or, ‘So, what I hear you saying is that you’re really stressed out.’ The approach sends the message that whatever is coming up inside of you, whatever you are thinking about right now is valuable.

“Second, reflect your kid’s feeling back to them. It’s just literally reflecting back. Ask yourself, ‘What are they experiencing emotionally right now?’ Maybe you say, ‘I’m sensing that you’re really worried,’ or, ‘You’re hurt that that person didn’t connect with you in the way you wanted.’ Those are simple to say, but not often simple to figure out, because it really takes tuning into the emotional plane in the conversation with your kid.

“The third recommendation might be the most practical and get parents the most return on their efforts. Focus on asking open-ended questions to encourage students to go deeper with their own strategies and their own solutions.

“An open-ended question is one that people can’t answer with one word. So, ‘Tell me about your day,’ or ‘What’s on your mind?’ It’s an invitation to our kids, our students, to say more about what they are thinking, what they are seeing, and the ideas they may have for navigating a problem.

“If we give anybody these things when we’re in a conversation, it’s a gift.”

Pitfalls of Controlling Parents

“At summer orientation, I refer to some great research by a UVA postdoc. They found three outcomes for teens whose parents are overbearing.

“The research found lower educational attainment by the age of 30. Because you think about it, if you’re telling your kids what to do, if you’re not a super good listener, you’re not nurturing your student’s developmental need be independent and high-achieving. The researcher, [Emily Loeb,] also found these students experience problems in romantic relationships and were measurably less well-liked by their peers.

“Nobody wants this for their kids and nobody intends it.”

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Your Kid’s Brain Is ‘Changing at Light Speed’

“If you’re a parent of a first-year, second-year, third- or fourth-year, their brains right now are changing at a faster rate than at any point in the human lifespan other than infancy. Their brains are changing at light speed. If you don’t change the way you’re parenting, you’re just not going to be as effective.”

Change How You Parent

“What students are most craving developmentally is someone who listens really well, who values what’s going on inside of them and values and validates their experiences, because they’re coming up on the point in their lives where that’s enough.

“To be clear, there will be times when someone is in crisis or there’s an extensive mental health history. You have to have range as a parent. There is a time and a place for everything. Even well-adjusted kids have crises and that’s a time where it is a little bit more interventional, rather than relational.

“But the majority of the time, the way to feel more connected to your kids is to go with what they are feeling developmentally. And right now, they’re craving some independence and some freedom of thought and some validation. They need to know that the adult they are starting to become is enough.”

Of course, Davis’ tips from last year still apply. He said that things such as giving your child permission to struggle and encouraging their lives outside the classroom are important.

And daily contact with your student is too much. That includes texting.

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications