Prior to joining the National Center for Fathering, I worked in various capacities with students on three college and university campuses. During that time, I noticed two common struggles that should be meaningful for all fathers of young adults: One, students of all backgrounds experienced some growth anxiety and uncertainty about their future. Second, many students did not get the support they desperately needed from their fathers.
That should be a challenge to you as a father-and to me, since my oldest son is a freshman in college.
College was once a period of transition to somewhere. Today, for many students, it is a transition from somewhere. They may be so preoccupied with family issues that they can’t concentrate on preparing for their future. So they act out their frustrations through drug abuse, binge drinking, reckless sexuality, hate crimes, destroying university property, fights, and other inappropriate behaviors.
Conversely, the students who did adjust well, excel in their studies, and go on to phenomenal jobs or graduate schools usually came from solid homes with involved mothers and fathers. These kids were secure, positive, and focused. There were exceptions, but I was astounded at how often the students who struggled came from difficult home situations.
One girl went to a fraternity party, where she had two cups of grape punch-unaware that it was spiked with grain alcohol. She passed out and was later raped. She got pregnant with twins and never told anyone, not even her parents. She became so anxious that she miscarried one of the twins. When I asked why she hadn’t called her parents, she replied, “My dad would be so angry at me!”
I remember the boy who attempted suicide because he wasn’t happy studying to become an engineer-his father’s profession. He couldn’t tell his father, so I called them both in for a conference. Even in my office, the father was controlling, unrelenting, and insensitive: “Since I’m the one paying for your education, you’ll do what I want.”
Finally, there was the girl who had worked so hard to graduate, only to have her big day ruined because her divorced parents couldn’t put aside their issues and get along for a few hours. She had to rush between two graduation parties, wearing a smile she did not feel.
This generation of students and college-age adults need us like perhaps no other. So many of them feel misunderstood, unaccepted and alone. As fathers, we can still be a positive force in our children’s lives. I have three suggestions on how to go about it:
1. Affirm them. A young adult has a deep need to feel loved, competent, and accepted. She also needs a sense of control over her life as she finds her place in a diverse, complex, and swiftly changing global community.
Ideally, her father would help build that into her throughout her childhood. But even if he didn’t, he can still be a help to her by offering encouraging words. Too many young adults have the words, “You’ll never amount to anything” ringing in their ears. They need their father to tell them he’s proud of the place they’re making for themselves in the world.
2. Be willing to talk through painful issues. Maybe you have been insensitive, uncaring and disengaged from your child in the past. Even if you are doing better now, he still may need to resolve some anger or bitterness toward you. It will be tough, but stay focused on what’s best for your child. You both probably have some apologizing and forgiving to do. Stay in there-no matter what he says. Don’t get offended or give up. Your relationship will be much better-and your child will be much more at peace-after working through these issues.
3. Build a spiritual foundation. There are many spiritual beliefs floating around college campuses, and your student should not arrive without a firm handle on what he believes. Too many students, in an effort to satisfy their starving spirits, end up in cults or other inappropriate organizations. Give your kids a strong foundation before they leave home and encourage them to persevere once they’re out on their own.
For too many young people, facing the future is like walking into a dark tunnel. They don’t know how to get through it or what’s on the other side. Our children need our care, our sensitivity, our listening ear, and our unconditional love. Best of all, they just need to know that we are there for them.
Bernard Franklin, Ph.D. is a father of four children and president of Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley in Kansas City.