Parents learn to check their worries at the campus gates

MONTREAL — From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

Frances Handrahan is hoping her 18-year-old daughter Maureen will message her every day from her dorm room.

Ms. Handrahan, a Charlottetown mother of three, just learned how to use instant messaging so she can keep in touch with her eldest, who is starting at McGill University.

Just tiny messages, Ms. Handrahan asked her daughter, dabbing her eyes as they sat outside during parent-and-student orientation at the Montreal campus last week. Like what Maureen ate for breakfast. Or what classes she has that day.

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Maureen nods and touches her mother's hand.

"Maybe not every day, Mom."

As thousands of students start their first year of university, the parents who are dropping them off are seeking to strike a delicate balance between hovering too much and keeping tabs. Across the country, parents are grappling with the same questions: Will my kid be okay? And how will I know if something is wrong?

"It's a similar feeling to when she started Grade 1," says Ms. Handrahan. "You knew there was going to be a whole part of their day you weren't going to be a part of."

At McGill, parents strolled campus with their children, discussing laptop and cellphone purchases and initiating a common discussion - how often would their newly emancipated teen be calling home?

More than 2,000 parents visited an orientation tent to purchase credit cards and set up bank accounts for students, as well as to hear presentations on safety from Montreal police and campus security.

Petra and Walter Hughes of Ottawa said that being separated from their 18-year-old daughter, Marissa, for the first time means coming up with new ways of communicating. Until now, the family has relied on nightly dinners to check in.

"We have to see how much space she wants," Ms. Hughes says. "And how needy we are."

Now that 18-year-old Angela Iadanza is starting at McGill, her parents are asking for just one phone call a week, on Sunday evenings.

They all have Skype, a service that allows free calls over the Internet and an audio-visual system so they can see each other while they chat.

Angela has agreed to the one phone call as well as the occasional e-mail. "As long as I don't have to call home every day," she says.

Her parents, Terry and Susan, have already been broken in: Their 20-year-old son Joseph would take weeks to return a call when he started school. Mr. Iadanza finally reached him through instant messaging.

When students do not call or e-mail home as often as parents would like, it is not helpful to punish them or make them feel guilty, experts say.

Research on adolescent disclosure - how and why teenagers communicate with their parents and peers - has consistently found that young people clam up when parents are perceived to be controlling or negative.

"Even though you'd love to have an e-mail every day, you can't demand it," says Joan Grusec, a University of Toronto psychologist.

When the long-awaited message is finally sent, do not say, "It's about time you e-mailed," Dr. Grusec says.

Instead, she says, parents should relay their pleasure about receiving the message and keep their student updated about what is happening at home, rather than asking multiple questions about campus life.

"Kids talk more to parents who are warm and loving," she says.

Saying goodbye does get easier with practice, say Judy and Bill Tessler of Toronto, who were at McGill dropping off 18-year-old Amy, their third daughter to leave the house for university.

The Tesslers know they may not hear from their daughter for weeks and then receive an anxious call, out of the blue, with a question about cooking before a potluck with roommates.

At the beginning of term, when schedules are getting sorted out and bureaucratic mistakes are common, there is usually a lot of calling home to complain.

They expect lots of cooking queries from Amy, whose residence does not serve food on weekends. Or she may just eat out and ignore Mom and Dad for a while.

"If you have expectations they are never met," Ms. Tessler says.

"She'll have to figure it out for herself."