Is Executive Function the Missing Link to Your Kid's Success?
You’ve puzzled over plenty of life’s mysteries. Why does food taste better outdo...
Sep 01, 2022
Exactly a decade ago, I found myself trundling toward Louis Armstrong Airport on a crowded shuttle of folks like me who were eager to evacuate New Orleans before Hurricane Isaac made landfall. My mental checklist ticked off all the items I needed to have with me: wallet, ID, tickets, carry-on bag. Hmmm - I seemed to be missing one important thing. Oh yeah, my kid! I had just dropped off my 18-year-old son for his freshman year at Tulane. Bright-eyed, eager, and a little anxious, Mitch was embarking on his college experience with a tad more drama than I had anticipated. Still, while I saw lots of parents do a u-turn and take their kids back with them until the storm passed and the risk of danger abated, my gut told me to fly home to Massachusetts and let him live with the upheaval the next days or weeks may bring.
Now, Isaac was not the monster storm that Katrina was, but there was plenty of uncertainty about its intensity that made that decision pretty tough. The airport shuttle was crammed with parents and their college students who were unwilling to take that chance. Yikes. Maybe I’ve got this all wrong, I worried, as visions of Mitch wading through chest-high water with his guitar case lofted overhead crept into my brain.
It turns out that abandoning my kid to tough out Isaac was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I might not have been able to articulate this as clearly a decade ago, but I think it’s important that you understand why I did what I did and how those principles apply to parents of college students, in particular.
In a 2020 article in Forbes, Dr. Anthony Rao, an author and researcher on the topic states, “Anxiety is a highly contagious emotion. We have mirror neurons that automatically pick up and mimic the strong emotional signals of others around us. When parents are anxious, it transfers easily to their kids.”
While I wasn’t aware of this particular science at the time, I worked on projecting calm and confidence that my son could handle whatever came his way in the aftermath of the hurricane that was fast approaching the city. Was it easy? Nope. I needed to get my own emotions regulated in order to pull this off. Some folks might meditate, take deep breaths - I tended toward exercise interspersed with New Orleans beignets to make sure Mitch didn’t absorb my own fears.
Dropping off our kids at college, whether it’s a brief drive across town or a trek across the country, is hard on parents. But I’d argue that this is not the time to be open and honest about your feelings concerning this with your kid. In fact, a little opacity on that front is just what they need in order to separate their own emotions from yours. Hey, there are lots of ways to vent and share with your own peers (Grown & Flown’s parent Facebook page is terrific for that). Creating those emotional boundaries helps your student tune into their own feelings and access their own coping mechanisms, without them having to worry about your well-being on top of their own ample list of worries that any new college student has.
Tim Davis, a clinical psychologist and an expert in resiliency, teaches a course called “The Resilient Student: Transition, Thriving, and Leadership.” at the University of Virginia. He speaks to parents at orientation sessions at the university and offers this advice about communicating with your student:
“Daily contact with your student is too often, and texting counts. From a developmental standpoint, at this time in students’ lives, their primary job is to individuate and separate from their family. And parents, while very well-intentioned, often kind of short-circuit their child’s ability to do that job by having too much contact.”
Think of it this way, every time you text with your kid about banal stuff while they’re away at college, you’re reminding them of their role as a child in a context where they need to be acting as an adult. The whiplash they encounter toggling between those worlds can serve to inhibit the individuation Tim Davis mentions. So, yeah, while I reached out to Mitch for general wellness checks during Issac and its aftermath, it was brief and sparse. Kinda like “Hey, offspring, you alive?” “Yep!”. And following that, we pretty much kept it to once-a-week catch-ups with each other.
What will you lose out on by cutting back on daily communication? You won’t have the day-to-day details of your kid’s life anymore. And that’s OK and necessary for them to become their own person. See #1 above as you deal with your own anxiety surrounding that loss. Your discomfort is short-term, while their development into confident, independent adults lasts a lifetime.
The only thing I can assure you of is that your student will have some manner of crisis while they’re at college. Now repeat after me: “It is not my job to solve my kid’s problems.” I’m not talking about a capital letter Crisis here, of course. Mental or physical health crises must be addressed quickly by all means available to you and your student.
No, I’m talking about things like:
That means when your kid texts you “I lost my room key” resist the urge to tell them exactly what they should do next - and, heaven forbid, do not make calls on their behalf to get it replaced. Instead, try assuring them that they have the capacity to figure it all out “That stinks. I know you’ll find a way to resolve this because you’re smart and resourceful. Good luck!” What a powerful and empowering message to send, right?
What about when things get dicey with a class? Be a sounding board for considering options and reflect on what you're hearing, steering clear of directing the action. "It sounds like you feel worried about attending office hours to get some guidance with your paper. I've seen you do hard things before and really gain confidence when you follow through. What would it take for you to try this out?"
So, OK, riding out a hurricane is less than a common occurrence - but allowing my kid to do that set the stage for how we handled all the more typical bumps in the road that followed from time to time.
Again, the advice that Tim Davis gives parents emphasizes the importance of students figuring things out themselves. “Without those struggles, without adversity, they will not be able to develop into the high-functioning, resilient young adults that we want them to become. That’s when they’re developing new skills, new competencies, new neural networks that will, in my opinion as a clinical psychologist, be the most important thing that they [graduate] with, when they have that cap on: a newly wired brain.”
Hey, so what happened to my kid during the New Orleans hurricane of 2012? Turns out, they lost power for a few days, classes were canceled for a bit (it was dubbed a “Hurrication” on campus), and flooding and damage were considerable but not catastrophic.
Scott Cowen, then President of Tulane, sent a note to parents a few days after the storm hit: “Obviously, Isaac has upended our lives for days. It is also giving us a shared experience that will bring the Tulane community closer together, teach us great lessons in friendship and resiliency and remind us of what matters most. Throughout the storm, I visited students in their residence halls and talked to off-campus students. The welcome they gave me, their unflagging good humor, their songs and laughter lifted my spirits and sustained me.”
And what do you think I saw when I clicked that YouTube link in his letter? Why, there was Mitch in a dark and grainy video sitting with 20 or more kids in Butler Hall, playing his guitar and leading a sing-along as President Cowen joyfully looked on.
Mitch and his peers who were “left behind” by their parents had a life-altering experience that buoyed them with confidence throughout their time at Tulane - (“Heck, we survived Isaac, we can do anything!”).
I asked my son to reflect on it all (yeah, I texted him). “It was an incredibly significant experience—I met my future wife, as well as some of my very best friends, during that hurricane lockdown. We were thrown together in a more immediate way than we would have been otherwise. In retrospect it felt like the beginning of my adult life; all the pieces were already in place.”
I can’t help but wonder what those other students missed out on who were whisked away to safety and certainty, protected from the coming storm.
Jackie Hebert is the Director of Marketing for Beyond BookSmart. Whether it's managing our websites, overseeing our social media content, authoring and editing blog articles, or hosting webinars, Jackie oversees all Marketing activities at Beyond BookSmart. Before joining Beyond BookSmart in 2010, Jackie was a Speech-Language Pathologist at Needham High School. She earned her Master's degree in Speech-Language Pathology from Boston University, and her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Executive function coaching for students online throughout the U.S. and internationally.
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