New beginnings are exciting and fun but come with the stress and fear of challenges and uncertainties surrounding navigating new waters. Last month, I dropped my daughter off at medical school. At 22, she was starting her first year in medical school, but the stress around beginning a new phase in life was not much different from a similar situation when she was a teenager starting college. At 18, when your kids head to college, as exciting as it may be both for the parents and the teenager, the transition of adjusting to life away from home, handling a challenging academic load, trying to make new friends, fitting into the social scene at college, and balancing part-time or even full-time work can be overwhelming. As parents, we can help our kids feel empowered and capable as they make this transition. Here are a few tips for helping your teenager settle into college.
Before Heading Off to College
Helping your child develop responsibility, time management skills, organization, taking time for self-care, and encouraging them to ask for help when needed are some valuable skills we can focus on, especially throughout the latter half of high school. In the summer before college, talk to your kids about their expectations and fears about college life and offer a safe space to discuss their feelings without fear of judgment. Every kid is different in their approach to academic and social life. Listening to them before offering advice will help us understand their hopes and fears about this transition. Help them realize that they are not alone in how they feel. Realistic conversations with parents, older siblings, recent alums, and counselors are great ways to help reduce their anxiety.
Focus on Their Mental Health
Although teenagers are eager to start college and experience their independence, in those first months at college, they are anxious about losing the security that living at home provides. With the rising rates of depression and anxiety in young adults, it is especially important to encourage your teens to not only communicate with parents but also to use the extensive resources available at colleges to help them deal with the stress of this transition. Research shows that mental health and substance abuse problems are on the uprise and many young adults go without seeking help during these critical periods.
After You Drop Them Off
This is the hardest phase for both the parents and the young adults. Check on your kids with regular text messages and phone calls but do not overdo it. Your kids appreciate your care and involvement even though they may not express it, but parents need to accept that the communication from your kid may be sporadic during this transition. The first weeks are packed with activities and meeting new people. They are navigating new schedules, academic pathways, and social lives. Give them time and space and learn to be ok with their changing communication patterns. Resist your urge to find out about every minute detail of their lives. Stay involved while avoiding becoming the ‘helicopter’ parent!
To Visit or Not to Visit
Although it is reasonable to visit your child once a semester during the first year, believing in your child’s ability to deal with this transition and expressing faith and support for them is more valuable and helpful for your child. Validate their feelings of loneliness, sadness, and anxiety. Tell them that every college freshman will go through these emotions before it gradually gets better. Help them access the various academic and wellness resources available in college. They need to be present on campus to find their comfort on campus. Although parents are tempted to go visit or bring their kids home frequently for visits to help them overcome loneliness, it is vital that your child have a chance to deal with these emotions independently.
Care Packages Are the Best
Sending a care package, whether a box of home-baked cookies or a custom package, is a great way to show your child they are loved and missed. Especially before an exam week, this special gesture with a note of encouragement is sure to make them feel loved and appreciated.
When To Step In
Although college is a great place for your child to maneuver life’s challenges, experiment with different solutions for problems, learn from mistakes, and enjoy the triumphs of prevailing, it might sometimes become necessary for parents to step in and help. If you are concerned about your child’s safety or well-being, it is crucial that you get involved in exploring solutions, whether it is about an aggressive or disruptive roommate, your child’s health being affected by stress, or issues related to substance abuse. Discuss the matter with your parenting partner, a counselor, or a trusted friend to see if you are overreacting.
Understanding Your Own Expectations and Emotions
This is another key part of navigating this transition and is helpful for yourself and your child. As you deal with your own loneliness and stress of empty nesting, it is important that you should not try to fill that void by overtly intruding into the life of your college kid. Many parents veer off into roles of teachers, coaches, and ‘chauffeurs’ for their school-age kids for many years that they lose touch with their own interests and hobbies. Now is the time to reconnect with your passions.
The first year of college is a hard transition phase for parents and children. Your child is trying to ride the highs and lows of discovery, new people, independence, insecurities, disappointments, and mistakes, while parents are trying to deal with the sadness of missing their child and anxiety about how their kid is managing life independently. With proper guidance and encouragement, you can help your child’s successful transition into college life. Parents need to be available as a sounding board and a safety net for their child without being too intrusive and curbing their independence and joy of exploration.