Family Factors That Influence You In College

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Shorter Version

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The definition of “family” has changed over the years. It has gone from primarily referring to a “traditional or nuclear family” (a two-parent home, a couple of kids, a dog, a father who worked outside of the home, and a mother who worked inside of it, and a white picketed fence) to including divorced families, stepfamilies, single-parent families, same-sex families, working families (both parents work outside of the home), poverty-stricken families – and everything in-between.

It’s important to understand that when children experience trauma, changes in their family dynamics, parental beliefs that do not support higher education, and/or little-to-no time with parents, the effects follow them into adulthood. As a result, some have a harder time achieving academic success.

Family factors that influence a student’s behavior in college

According to studies, a college kid who grew up in a challenging or aversive environment is more likely to skip classes, miss homework deadlines, do poorly on tests and assignments, have lower grades, party every night or weekend, engage in alcohol and illegal substances, and drop out before earning a degree.

The good news is you don’t have to allow your past to influence your future – even if that past includes or rests solely on your family. With the right mindset, you can achieve academic success, snagging the job of your dreams once you graduate. 

Parental attitudes toward education

Young children learn about the world (i.e. what to say, what to believe, how to feel, and what to do) by observing and copying their family’s behaviors. This method continues throughout the teen years and well into adulthood.

Thus, college students’ behaviors are often based on the things they were taught by their parents and/or caregivers during early childhood.

They are also heavily influenced by their parents’ beliefs and behaviors. In fact, according to a study on parental attitudes towards education and success, there is a strong link between parents’ educational beliefs and their college student’s attitudes toward academic success.

Results suggest that college kids with parents who view education positively and encourage their kids to go to college are more likely to achieve their academic goals. Thus, parents’ educational beliefs are good indicators of a college kid’s success in undergrad and graduate school.


Another family factor that can influence a college student’s behavior is a change in family dynamics. For instance, young adults who have divorced parents are more likely to experience emotional distress, once they enter college.

In fact, according to a study on divorce and academic achievement, young adults who have divorced parents are more likely to experience behaviors problems (i.e. impulsivity, recklessness, promiscuity, and substance abuse, depression and/or anxiety) than college kids who grew up in an intact two-parent home. This is especially true if the divorce is recent and/or if it was traumatic for him or her.

Why does this occur? Well, when the sole parent in the home tends to struggle with feelings of abandonment, anger, anxiety, and depression, his or her child picks up on this – regardless of his or her age. As a result, the child internalizes these emotions, causing him or her to behave impulsively, neglectfully, and/or erratically in college.

According to a study on single-parent homes and behavior, children from single-parent homes tend to “act up” in college because they feel like they do not have parental support. In other words, they feel neglected by their parent because he or she is unable to attend family college events, help them settle in at college, meet their new college friends, visit them, and/or explore the college campus with them.

This is frustrating and depressing for college kids, especially if their friends’ parents visit and support them. It is important to note that many times single parents have to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet, so it is often impossible for them to get out of work to visit their kids or attend family college functions.

Regardless, it still hurts not to have parental support during this exciting and scary time.

Economic stability

Family economic stability and more specifically, poverty, can influence a college student’s behavior. How? Well, children who grow up in low-income homes tend to worry about their parents’ finances – i.e. where they will live and what they will eat. As a result, these children grow up anxious, fearful, and in a state of flux.

These children also may experience fluctuating caregivers, lack of supervision and/or support, poor role-modeling, and/or scarce food sources. This mentality follows children as they grow up and enter college. The effects of growing up in a financially unstable home include an on-going and unrelenting fear of running out of money and having to leave college and/or pressure to get a job to pay for essentials like room and board, books, and food.

These factors not only affect a young adult’s ability to focus in college, but they also influence how he or she performs and behaves there.

For instance, if a college kid is constantly worried about his or her family situation back home, it can negatively affect his or her ability to focus on his or her schoolwork – and the “college experience.” 

In fact, according to a study on poverty and education, college students from impoverished families tend to score lower on academic tests, especially in English and in math. These college students also tend to have a harder time working with others on team projects. Similarly, according to another study on family income levels and cognitive development, college students who come from low-income families have heightened cortisol levels, which have been linked to poorer cognitive functioning.

The spending habits of a kid’s parents can also influence his or her spending habits in college. According to a study on parental spending habits and students’ saving behavior, college kids who grew up with frugal parents or in low-income families typically are more conservative spenders than those who grew up in middle class or affluent families. On the flip side, those who grew up in families with poor budgeting skills typically are more careless about their finances.

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Actionable Steps


Engage with other students

The best way to feel like you belong is to engage with other college students. It is important to feel like you belong in college, especially if you are LBGT, an older adult, and underrepresented minority. Moreover, if you grew up in a dysfunctional, poor, and/or unhealthy family, it is extremely important you feel like you fit at school and on campus.
The best way to make friends in college is to join groups and organizations that focus on your passions and interests, such as a business club, Caribbean Student Association, Catholic Student Association, pre-nursing/health/medical clubs, International Student Association, Temple University Diamond Gems, a political science/pre-law club, a computer science club, etc. Greek sororities and fraternities also foster a sense of belonging.
These organizations (i.e. Delta Phi Zeta, Lambda Sigma Upsilon, Zeta Phi Beta, etc.) are especially good for college kids who didn’t grow up with a healthy sense of “family” or “family values.”


Keep a positive mindset

Another thing you can do to overcome family influences while in college is to keep a positive mindset. It is important to understand that your own success in college and beyond is not determined by your family. Rather, you have the power to forge your own path and create your own destiny.
One way you can make sure you develop and maintain a healthy mindset is by surrounding yourself with positive influences (a strong healthy support group) and positive affirmations. Purchase a positive affirmation card and place them in your dorm room and car. Don’t forget to stash some in your notebooks for those heavy days. And, read and re-read them once or twice a day to keep your mind healthy and strong.
“Write down the affirmations that make you feel good, better, and your best and rely on them when you feel stressed and overwhelmed.”
~ Psychologist’s Note!


Develop academic and personal goals

The best way to branch out from family influences is to create and stick to personal and academic goals. When you create your own goals (not linked to your family), you not only learn more about yourself – i.e. what makes you happy and unhappy, what you want or do not want, etc., but you also learn how to think and live independently. What are your personal and academic goals? If you are not sure, you can always search the internet for examples of personal and academic goals or purchase self-help guides that will help you decide what you want to accomplish personally and academically.
“According to recent studies, setting clear and realistic goals can have a positive impact on college students’ personal and academic success.”
~ Psychologist’s Note!

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About the Author

Dr. R. Y. Langham

Dr. R. Y. Langham

Ph.D. in Family Psychology

Ree has a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy (M.M.F.T.) and a Ph.D. in Family Psychology. She spent over ten years counseling families, couples, individuals, and children on adjustment issues such as blended families, same-sex couples, dysfunctional family relationships, relationship issues, etc. Now she writes for famous health organizations and is a published author.
Full Bio | LinkedIn

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