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Q&A With Rick Webb, Director of Psychological Services

Fear, anxiety, loneliness—these are emotions experienced by students and parents alike during the first year of college. Rick Webb, Director of Psychological Services at Haverford, provides advice and support for both parties as they adjust to their separation and new surroundings. In addition to addressing students’ and parents’ concerns year round, Webb and the staff at Psychological Services meet with mothers and fathers during the first day of Customs week to discuss the challenges of parenting a college student.

Here, Webb talks about the variety of issues parents and students face throughout the four years of college:

Q: What are usually the biggest concerns expressed by parents of first-year students? What advice do you give them?

A: Parents sometimes, surprisingly, lack faith in their own parenting skills and need help in letting go of their sons and daughters. When we talk to parents, we remind them that they have to trust that they have given their children a good foundation. Of course they will stumble, but parents can’t help them by scrutinizing and micromanaging their lives.

Parents are also scared that their children will change and discover ideas that will take them further afield from their families, and make them question their families’ values and philosophies. They fear that these students won’t find their way back to a position that allows them to be well connected to the family.

I advise parents to think of their 18-year-olds as toddlers to the inner world. The metaphor of the toddler reminds parents of what their children were like at ages two and three: full of life and yet transitioning from being oblivious to the dangers of life to realizing with some anxiety that the world also holds some dangers and strangeness about it. This feeling manifests itself when the toddler leaves the playroom, seeks out his or her parents, and grabs their legs or climbs on their laps for a few minutes. This is “emotional refueling”, and instinctively parents know that they can’t push their toddlers away, nor overreact and hold them too tightly. Now, young adults are toddlers to the inner world of exploration, the world within emotionally and intellectually. During the first year they’ll have a need to touch base with their parents, through daily phone calls or calls and tears in the middle of the night. This is their need to refuel, and parents shouldn’t misread this. Much as they were when their son or daughter was first a toddler, parents need to be there to “hold” and be there to “let go.”

Q: Have parents’ issues changed over the years?

A: There have been remarkably few changes in terms of the essential matters, underlying psychological concerns. On the more manifest level, current world events are always on parents’ minds; a war heightens anxiety, a bad economy raises concerns about finding jobs after graduation. There has been a growing interest among parents in international study. They appreciate that the world is larger than the United States, and they see the virtue of their sons and daughters going beyond the boundaries of this country.

Q: Are their different issues students face depending on their status as freshmen, sophomores, juniors, or seniors?

A: The difference between a freshman and a senior is huge. First-year students have to deal with separation from their families, and the whole year focuses on their adjustment. Customs teams are designed to provide a substitute family as a bridge to help students. Usually by Thanksgiving, the cohesiveness of these groups begins to dissipate, as freshmen branch out and realize they don’t have to move en masse as a Customs group. It’s an exciting year for them; they’re new on campus and everyone’s interested in them.
Sophomore year is tough psychologically. The members of their Customs groups are scattered across campus. They face issues of choosing a major during second semester. First-year romances begin to break apart. This is often the year of the identity crisis: “Who am I? What major do I choose?”

Junior year is often the best year for stability and enjoyment of college life. They’re fully entrenched in the campus, they have a major and a path to follow, and they’re upperclass. Their cylinders are firing pretty well, and they’re not quite looking over the horizon yet.
Senior year comes on fast, and the prospect of leaving in May looms early and quickly in the students’ minds and hearts. It’s tough because anxiety over the next step is at the door: deciding what they want to do with their lives. Romance is also difficult, as it becomes a question of “What are we going to do?”

Q: Many stories in the press point to parents increasingly demanding to be more involved in their children’s education. Do you find this to be true?

A: It’s very true. Many of today’s students grew up in a society of specialization and service providing. Students have had gaps in their needs filled by a service or a specialist. Instead of unstructured play, their time has been quite structured with activities like judo, music lessons, soccer, etc. The high tuition of a school like Haverford feeds parents’ expectations that these same services will be provided for their children. I tell parents that Haverford is a warm environment, filled with services and support, but a community committed to helping students take responsibility for their actions, to be creative and initiate activities. I think it’s critical to their development for them to learn how to speak up, and if a parent intervenes too quickly, too often, or too emphatically, the lesson doesn’t get learned at all. I allow for the possibility that sometimes parents need to step in, but I’m more inclined to say that the parents’ roles are to serve as consultants when their children go to them with dilemmas and ask for advice. For parents to rest easy with this “consultant’s” role they must have faith in the good will of the College, that we are all, so to speak, on the same team.

Q: What advice do you offer first-year students on how to handle their parents’ concerns?

A: Students are conflicted about wanting to please their parents yet find their own identities and paths. I tell them that I don’t think it’s in their best interests to shut down communication with their parents. They don’t have to tell every single detail of their lives—they are entitled to privacy—but they can let their parents know the general fabric of their lives. They shouldn’t be afraid of disagreements with their parents, and have faith that honesty will be the proof in the pudding, that through their honesty parents will ultimately realize they are maturing and respect them as young adults who can make independent decisions.

Students cross in front of Founders Hall.

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