Navigating Her Freshman Year: A Survival Guide for Mom

By Pam Willsey, Willsey Connections

Your daughter is now  off to college, and in just a few short weeks the hustle of getting her enrolled, packed up, moved in and scheduled for classes has been replaced with late night phone calls leaving you wondering what to do, how much to do, when to step in, and when to bow out.

While most books and information for parents of rising freshmen focus on the emotional component of missing your daughter, finding purpose in an empty nest, combatting worry and learning how to let go, you’ll soon also find yourself navigating complex “right now” situations… and your response will either clip — or grow—  your daughter’s proverbial wings.

I should know. Not only am I a licensed therapist and certified coach specializing in teenage girls, I have one child in college already and am scheduled to drop my only daughter off for her freshman year in less than a month. Like you, I’m excited, proud and also worried. Like your daughter, my own brings both emotional assets and liabilities into her first year of quasi-adulthood. And like all parents, I want to do this right.

There are a wide variety of “late night phone calls home” topics, but whatever her reason, here are some additional “unpleasant, but you’ll both grow from this” realities inherent in being the parent of a rising freshman girl.

You’ll likely be her dumping ground.

The two of you are close, despite the “run ins” that creep up between teenage girls and their mothers… making you the person she’s most likely to call when she needs to vent, rage, complain, cry. This is no fun.  After one of these phone calls, your whole day will likely be ruined.  She’ll likely feel better after unloading on you, but you’re probably going to lose sleep over it.

She’ll call about roommate problems, lost keys, stolen items, loneliness, professors that “hate her” and she’ll call when she’s sick and/or feeling down. She’ll call you because you’re her mom and while she’s now an “adult child” she still feels like you can make things better in some way.

Resist the temptation to become a helicopter parent. Your job is not to “fix” situations anymore. While your first instinct may be to tell your daughter exactly what to do — or worse, do it for her — the better way to respond is to listen, ask questions, and if appropriate suggest resources.

your job is not to fix situations anymore

First things first, you want to be sure she’s in a safe situation. For example, if she’s calling from her cellphone after being left at a party and is now walking home alone, you’ll want to encourage her to contact campus security and continue the conversation when she’s safe at home.

Next, because our daughters can sometimes be over-emotional,  you want to be able to assess the situation logically.  I encourage my clients to classify a situation with one of the following analogies:

  • A GREEN LIGHT situation may be upsetting and emotional, but your daughter is safe, well and is likely just venting. Examples:
    • Your daughter calls frantic because she doesn’t have anyone to go to the party with tomorrow night, and EVERYONE else has already made a plan.
    • Your daughter can’t seem to find her splash card(for the first time), and doesn’t know what to do…
  • A YELLOW LIGHT situation is a situation that may require further and / or ongoing discussion and definite resolution. In these situations, she may need to be directed to additional resources to help her navigate them successfully. It may be appropriate to encourage her to discuss these situations with her Resident Advisor or someone else in leadership. Examples:
    • Your daughter has recently been sick with the flu, and has gotten behind in her assignments.
    • Your daughter reports that her roommate may be “borrowing/stealing” her things and not returning them
  • A RED LIGHT situation is something more serious, requiring professional intervention whether from the mental health options on campus, school officials or medical personnel. EXAMPLES:
    • Your daughter has not slept in many days, and her anxiety is at an all time high.
    • Your daughter has been calling you crying on and off for several weeks, and she seems to be sleeping more and isolating herself.
  • Once you’ve assessed the situation, you’ll be able to manage your own emotions, time and resources far more effectively. It’s important to make sure your daughter feels heard without judgment and without a “here’s exactly what you need to do” approach.  Ask questions, assess and suggest resources when appropriate.  You only want to step in for true red light situations.

You May Hear Some Talk about Her “Coming Home” or Transferring to Another College.

This wouldn’t be out of the ordinary.  Generally speaking, most “freshman misery” resolves itself by Christmas and most college freshman feel at home in their chosen school by the end of the year. Still, four out of ten students end up transferring schools.  As a general rule, unless you’re concerned about your daughter’s safety / well being, encourage her not to make any decisions until the end of her first year.  There are a lot of lessons still to be learned… lessons she can take with her (if she ultimately chooses to transfer)during her transfer. (Check out this related article: When talk turns to transfer or time off).

Regardless of how bright your daughter is, she may struggle — for the first time in her life — academically.

Because this may be the first time her grades have slipped, it’s easy to assume that she’s partying too much, going to class too little and just needs to “do better.” While that may be the situation for your daughter, it’s important to consider other — very viable — options as well. Maybe she’s experiencing test anxiety or isn’t sleeping well in her new living arrangement. It could also be that she can’t easily comprehend the material due to a professor’s teaching style, or she’s not able to study well in her dorm room,   and she just hasn’t found an effective place to study.  She could also have an undiagnosed learning challenge, as these are often discovered during a student’s freshman year.  As with everything else, you’ll want to calmly assess the situation and encourage her to take action to remedy it.

As you can see, her freshman year isn’t just going to be a roller coaster for her, we’re riding shotgun… but we should very rarely — red light situations only — take the wheel.  Whether it’s friends, boys, grades, roommates, professors or an employer,  the key for us as moms is to empower and encourage her to advocate effectively for herself, to consider her options and to take action.

About the Author:


Pam Willsey

Pam Willsey, a licensed therapist and certified life coach, is the industry leader in equipping young women to navigate the challenges and opportunities of their Freshman year.  Visit her site, Willsey Connections, to learn more and get a DIY assessment of your daughter’s readiness.

Also by Pam:

Is she ready? A Parent’s Guide to Assessing Their Daughter’s Emotional and Social College Readiness

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