When a university welcomes a student, it doesn’t just welcome them—it welcomes a family.
This is at the heart of the Penn Reading Project for Parents, an initiative led by the Division of the Vice Provost for University Life (VPUL), Wellness at Penn, and Penn Parents, that distributed, to parents of incoming freshmen, approximately 730 copies of Professor of Psychiatry Anthony Rostain and Janet Hibbs’ book “The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years.” The book is written for parents of children entering or attending college, advising ways to help students manage the stresses of college life while also supporting them to develop resilience and to learn coping skills.
“This idea for making Penn a more welcoming place for new students’ parents has long been a dream of mine and that it’s coming true is beyond words,” Rostain says of the initiative. “I really believe that institutions of higher learning need to recognize that young adults are part of families, and that families are important resources throughout young adulthood and beyond.”
The book, co-authored with Hibbs, is written from the perspective of two mental health professionals who’ve spent their careers working with adolescents and young adults; notably, Hibbs’ son experienced major depression in his first year of college and saw Rostain for treatment. The book came about when Hibbs realized how ill-prepared she felt in knowing how to deal with her son’s depression as a parent or with the personnel at the college he attended.
“We crafted the book to be a practical parent’s guide,” Rostain explains. “It’s meant to help parents address their own worries and fears, and to offer resources their students can look to [that] make the transition as safe and successful as possible.”
The first half of the book discusses stress and resilience, exploring why Gen Z is so stressed out and how parents can help build social-emotional readiness for college. The second half focuses on crisis and recovery—“what to do if your kid is in real distress or is freaking out,” he says.
“The message of the book is that ‘Yes, you’re dropping off your kid at college, but it’s not just up to the school—parents still have a role to play, but not in as intensive or direct a fashion,’” Rostain adds.
The book ultimately gives parents a tool to feel more helpful.
Benoit Dubé, chief wellness officer and associate professor of clinical psychiatry, says that, after initially sending out an email to parents over the summer inviting them to register online for the book, he heard many stories of Penn parents—in their excitement—picking up a copy on their own beforehand. He describes it as “palpable excitement” among parents that the University made an effort to help them with their own anxiety.
“The idea behind this initiative was really for us to crystallize the partnership we wanted to make with parents as they entrust their students, their sons and daughters, to the institution,” Dubé says. “We wanted to, in a parallel fashion, highlight resources that exist here and also provide them with knowledge, information, skills, and tools to partner with sons and daughters to make this academic journey manageable and more pleasant.”
The books were distributed at a “Transitions: Helping Your Child Succeed at Penn” panel for New Student and Family Orientation held at Irvine Auditorium on Wednesday, Aug. 21, featuring University Chaplain Chaz Howard, Weingarten Executive Director Jane Holahan, and Dubé. Parents who received the book were encouraged to read it and return with feedback for the authors during Q&A events for Family Weekend on Nov. 2, held at College Hall at 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m.
Andrea Alhadari Patton, associate director of development in VPUL, says the division plans to promote the Family Weekend event as well as send emails during times when students are likely to return home, reminding parents to check in with their students and pointing to lines from the book that might be useful. They eventually plan to do an assessment to understand how parents used the book.
Family Weekend takes place Nov. 1-3; general registration is currently open.