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Encouraging Students to Engage their Parents, Caregivers, or other Supportive Adults

By: Erin Halligan-Avery, Ph.D., Director of Wellness Programs and Services; Student Affairs, Rochester Institute of Technology

Parents, caregivers, or other supportive adults can be a remarkably valuable resource when a student needs support. Often, these individuals have intimate knowledge about their student’s patterns of behavior and what it takes for them to succeed. Yet, many students are hesitant to bring their parents into the conversation about what went wrong, why they haven’t been to class in over a month, or how their mental health has declined.

Therein lies a challenge for case managers. We know, instinctively, that parents and caregivers can help the student find relief, but we are limited in our ability to engage this important source of support. Getting the student’s permission to call their parent is one way to address this concern, but helping the student address their own fear and discomfort associated with engaging their parent may be an even more productive, long-term strategy.  

Consider these four steps:

1. Ask this question:

“Who are the adults in your life that provide you with the most support?”
A student’s answer to this question will give you considerable insight into their world at home. Take note of their first response (e.g., “my mom,” “my auntie Rea,” “my older brother”) as this is very likely the person they would feel most comfortable with you bringing into the conversation.

2. Understand the Fear.

Very rarely, in my case management sessions, was a student eager to include a parent or caregiver in the conversation about needing support. Often, when we unpacked the fear, we would find that the student felt shame, embarrassment, and/or discomfort about not knowing what the reaction would be. Once you understand the fear, you can then start to adjust the student’s thinking about whether to include this support person.

Here are a few examples of statements that may be useful:

  • “Do you have any examples of a time when [name of supportive adult] has continued to support you, even when you weren’t at your best?”
  • “If you were [name of supportive adult], how would you react to hearing how you’re doing right now?”
  • “How would you feel if [name of supportive adult] reacted in a way that helped you see how much they cared and want to help?”

3. Explain and Ask.

Share with the student your desire to include their parent or supportive adult in the conversation. Consider saying something like, “I have found that including mom or dad in this conversation can be scary at first, but really helpful in the long run.” Further, tell the student why you feel including their parent will be beneficial.

“Including your dad in this conversation will help us understand our options moving forward and to get you a support system established prior to you leaving campus. Without including your dad, we won’t know all of our options and opportunities.”

4. Do it together.

One of the more successful strategies I used as a case manager was offering to call the student’s parent, caregiver, or supportive adult together. Since the student is likely to be nervous prior to making the call, it is important to establish who will start the conversation, what your role will be, and an escape plan if it doesn’t go as expected.

I suggest starting the conversation with positive affirmation, “This conversation may be tough, but we’ll get through it together.” At the end of the call, be sure to ask the student how they feel and help them reflect on their earlier fears compared to the feeling they had at the end of the call.

Final thoughts

While including a parent, caregiver, or other supportive adults can be nerve-wracking and unsettling for the student, the rewards (e.g., more options, improved transparency, further learning about oneself, more accountability) often outweigh the initial nerves. Helping the student understand their reservations and feel the relief associated with this level of transparency is just one more way that case managers support students who are struggling.

“Trouble is part of your life — if you don’t share it, you don’t give the person who loves you a chance to love you enough.” – Dinah Shore [Singer, Actress]

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