Your Child Says, ‘I’m Quitting College’ — Now What?
Ask key questions, don't freak out — and other smart moves to make in this surprisingly common situation
Here are some staggering numbers for you: Seventy percent of American students will study at a four-year college, but less than two-thirds of them will actually graduate, according to new data from Collegeatlas.com.
Bleak pessimism coupled with parental panic may initially take center stage if your own child comes home declaring that, while she’s given it a try, college isn’t for her after all.
New friendships could mean new exposure to drugs. And for women, the first four to six weeks of freshman year are called a “red zone” for sexual assault.
Had this been your own declaration a few decades ago, you might readily have called yourself a quitter, a loser, or worse. But your long-term relationship with your child depends on your having the very opposite reaction to any announcement like this. Here’s how to assess the problem, avoid the many pitfalls, and agree on a solution that shows your child that you’re with her no matter what:
1.) Separate short-term problems from long-term problems.
Your first task is separating temporary difficulties from true patterns. Notwithstanding today’s colleges’ penchant for calling students “adults” from day one, these students are actually still kids under 21 who can get homesick, wonder why they’re not making more friends, and feel anonymous.
“But wanting to drop out is not typical,” said Barbara Greenberg, Ph.D, a Connecticut-based psychologist and co-author of the book, “Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent’s Guide to Becoming Bilingual.” “Your child may say, ‘I want to drop out’ after a breakup or a bad test grade. That’s momentary. You have to watch for consistency [in his or her reactions to adversity]. If your child says that repeatedly over time, then I would take it seriously and ask what isn’t working.”
The possibility that something even worse could be going on makes it imperative that you listen — not talk. New friendships could mean new exposure to drugs, for instance. And for women, the first four to six weeks of freshman year are called a "red zone" for sexual assault, since students haven't yet learned how to look out for themselves in their new surroundings.
If parents don't ask the questions, however, they might never learn the true reason their child wants out. "Kids need room to speak," Greenberg told LifeZette. "Only when you give them these silences do they have this." The alternative is parents doing all the talking, which leads to judgment — and makes things worse.
2.) Stay calmly on topic.
During these discussions, well-meaning parents often say and do things that are disastrous for the lifelong relationship they hope to have with their children. First off, remember that kids who drop out know that their parents feel let down. They already feel like failures — you needn't pile on. Instead, check your emotions.
"The second you get overly emotional, the kid will think his mother or father is freaking out and can't handle this topic," said Greenberg. "Then the conversation will end. Who's going to talk to a parent who can't tolerate what the kid is saying?"
The solution is to stay calm even if you have to fake it. Being calm doesn't mean being under-reactive, however, which would send another damaging message — that your child's well-being is meaningless to you.
There are other traps parents too willingly blunder into these days, such as talking about how difficult you yourself found college life. "One of kids' biggest complaints is that their parents steal the conversation and make it about them," said Greenberg. "It's not a time for sharing your experiences. It's a time to hear what's going on with your kid."
Want to reminisce? Do it with your old college friends. And whatever you do, know that certain declarations are poison to your relationship.
"I know what's going on with you" is terribly presumptive — but it gets worse. "I know what's best for you" inflicts considerable damage, as does this clunker: "I know you better than you know yourself." All three of these comments tell your child that you don't really know him at all.
The term "walking on eggshells" need not apply if you can recall how you wanted to be treated at that age.
First, be alone with your child; if possible, keep it to one parent at a time.
"You've got to love and support your kid. You've already had your college years."
"Kids will give more information [in a one-on-one setting]," said Greenberg. Second, don't contact family and friends afterward and spill secrets. "What your kid tells you," she said, "is very important and confidential information." You should even tell your child that it's just between you — and that you're in a judgment-free zone. Your job is to support her regardless of what's going on.
3.) Set a game plan.
Once you've fleshed out — together — the reasons your child is unhappy with college, you can better help with next steps. If your child has no particular complaints about the school yet is feeling great stress, perhaps the experience is merely too much too soon.
In such cases, explained Greenberg, buying a little time through a leave of absence (arranged with the school) could hold the student's spot. "Some kids are 17 or 18 but emotionally more like 16," she said. "Giving a college student the chance to do something else for six months or so lets her come back in better shape."
In some cases, the problem isn't with the entire college experience. A larger or smaller transfer college, a school in another part of the country, or a college with a different course of study could be a better fit. You can be of help here by having your child check that the new prospective school is open to a transfer, and whether credit earned at the first school will transfer.
And some students might never have actually wanted to go to college at all — but didn't want to disappoint their parents.
"What are they going to do," said Greenberg, "tell their parents, 'I want to be a carpenter'? That's hard, but at some point, you've got to love and support the essence of your kid and what he wants to do. You've already lived your college years."