How College Changes the Parent-Child Relationship

The distance can actually strengthen the bond.

Parents help their daughter, a freshman, move into her dorm at the University of Iowa. (Brian Ray / AP)

College is a formative time, not only for students’ minds but for their life skills as well. For the hundreds of thousands of undergrads in the United States who enroll as teens, college may mark the first time they have to manage their own schedules and master a laundry routine.

College is also a formative time for students’ relationship with their parents. Many undergrads, especially those who live on campus, are caught in a sort of limbo between dependence and independence, making their own rules and schedules but relying on their parents to help them navigate financial-aid applications and health insurance. Students may have to do their own grocery shopping, but there’s a good chance their parents are still footing the bill; they may live in a dorm, but their home is still likely their parents’ house, a place to which they return on breaks and during the summer. And this limbo, it turns out, may spur a healthy evolution in students’ relationship with their parents.

In one recent survey of roughly 14,500 college students across the U.S., three in five respondents said their relationship with their parents had improved since they started college; a quarter said the relationship was “much better.” Perhaps that’s in part because geographical distance fosters in students a greater appreciation for their parents. Students’ tendency to describe the relationship as improved “could be indicative of a shift in how young adults view the role of the parent as one of confidant and adviser rather than authoritarian,” says Tisha Duncan, an education professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina. Duncan is currently researching the stage of post-adolescent life that lasts through the late 20s and is known as “emerging adulthood.”

“Of the close relationships that people form in their lifetime, parent-child relationships are typically among the most enduring,” wrote the psychologists Christin Köber and Tilmann Habermas in a longitudinal study published last year on how people’s conceptions of their parents change as they age. Analyzing responses from 114 participants in four age groups spanning from 8 to 69, Köber and Tilmann found that the older they get, the more likely people are to perceive their parents as “individuals beyond their nurturing role.” People’s “understanding of parents”—the notion of them as real people—was found to be low during one’s late teens and 20s, after which it increases through late adulthood. Negative evaluations of one’s parents are especially common during adolescence. “This is partly because adolescents strive for emancipation from parents in order to establish social autonomy and their own personal identity,” Köber and Tilmann wrote.

During and right after the traditional college years, that adversarial posture starts to recede as students begin to “perceive their parents as complex individuals with weaknesses,” the scholars suggested. At the same time, as the authors of a separate longitudinal study note, parents may decide to “relinquish some degree of control over their offspring’s behaviors.” Because much of the tension that besets a teenager’s relationship with her parents stems from her sense of repressed autonomy, the newfound independence may help remedy that tension.

Of course, many young adults can’t or don’t attend college: As of April 2019, roughly three in 10 high-school graduates ages 16 to 24 weren’t pursuing a postsecondary education, according to federal data. These emerging adults will likely experience their own transition in their relationship to their parents—perhaps abruptly if they move away from home and become financially independent, perhaps in a gradual way similar to college students if they continue living with their parents but earn their own money.

Many of today’s emerging adults who do pursue college, meanwhile, are attaining independence from their parents more slowly than their predecessors did. Over the past decade or so, parents have assumed a more hands-on role in their kids’ college experiences—a trend that’s helped to popularize the helicopter-parent stereotype and may elongate students’ pathway to full-fledged autonomy. Instead of students announcing, ‘I got into college!,’ the parents are announcing, ‘We got into college!’” says Duncan, who’s worked at Meredith, a women’s college, for a little more than a decade as a professor and adviser.

By playing a more active role in their kids’ college life, parents may be changing the progression of that relationship, and delaying the distance that can breed understanding. In his forthcoming book, Failure to Launch: Why Your Twentysomething Hasn’t Grown Up … And What to Do About It, the clinical psychologist Mark McConville, who specializes in emerging adults, cautions parents against instilling in their kids the assumption that they’ll always be around to solve problems. This attitude can prompt a child to always take for granted her parents’ financial and material support, McConville argues—a tendency he suggests is the common denominator across all the “struggling transitioners” he’s worked with and writes about.

Parents may feel more inclined to participate in their kids’ college experiences these days in part because of how expensive tuition has become. The average parent of a college student plans on paying about 62 percent of her child’s total higher-education costs, according to data released last year by Fidelity. But Duncan hypothesizes that part of parents’ tendency toward intensive involvement with their college students also has to do with the growing use of technology in K–12 schools over the past five or so years. This technology has given parents in many districts greater access into the daily happenings of their kids’ school lives than ever before—through text communication with teachers, for example, and through real-time reports of kids’ academic progress and behavior. “So their entire educational experience has been collective in terms of the parent and the child traveling through school together,” she says.

Greater parental involvement can benefit students’ achievement, and Kristen Gray, the associate dean for health and counseling at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, says parental oversight can be helpful at the college level as well—in moderation. Like Duncan, Gray has noticed a shift in parents’ relationships with their college-aged kids. When she began her work 22 years ago, Gray almost never had parents “calling to share information [about their kids’ mental-health needs], to voice concern and make sure they knew what resources were available,” she says; rarely did they visit her office during student orientation to meet with a staff member. Now it happens all the time.

This can be a boon for students, Gray argues, especially given all the stressors of modern-day college life—reported rates of anxiety and depression among college students have reached record highs. Parents’ involvement should be focused on shepherding their kids to find the right help for a given problem rather than solving it for them. “There's a real difference there between” coddling a student,” Gray says, “and getting the student’s brain to develop some strategies, then helping the students evaluate those strategies.”

Duncan describes the relationship between parents and college students as more open, emotional, and sensitive than it was when she was a young adult, or even a decade ago. “I don’t see [intensive parenting] as the parents always speaking for the child or intervening for the child and not giving the child a voice,” Duncan says. “It’s much more that they’re interdependent, and coming through this [college] process together.”

This interdependence, research suggests, can make the parent-child relationship more gratifying in the long run. As long as parents embrace their role as advisers—rather than trying to hold on to their authority into college and beyond—they can not only better prepare their emerging-adult kids for full-fledged adulthood, but improve their bond with them, too.