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Making the Transition to College: A Guide for Parents

by Marylene Cloitre, PhD, and

Leaving for college is a major transition for both the teenager and the entire family. Some children may live at home or attend school nearby, whereas others may be relocating to different parts of the country. Regardless, going to college symbolizes that teenagers are separating from their parents and moving into adulthood. The transition to college, no matter how exciting, can also bring up feelings of sadness, loss, and concern to parents and children. In particular, children with a history of psychological difficulties, trauma, or loss may experience increased anxiety about such a major transition, and may worry about family members they are leaving behind. Parents may also have difficulty letting go, even though they are excited about their children's future. The following are some specific guidelines on preparing adolescents and their parents for college life.

Tips for Parents with Adolescents Preparing for College

  • Talk to your child. Openly discuss any concerns and fears your child has before leaving for college. Talk about your adolescent's thoughts and feelings regarding leaving the comfort and familiarity of school, friends, and routines. It is also important to express your expectations related to academic achievement, financial responsibility, safety precautions, and any other concerns with your child.
  • Educate. Your adolescent is likely to face increased social pressures in college, with less adult supervision. Talk to your child in advance about sex, drugs, and alcohol on campus, and explain the consequences of risk-taking behaviors. Discuss ways in which your college student can ensure his/her safety while fully experiencing college life. It is helpful for your child to hear your perspective and point of view.
  • Provide reassurance. Your adolescent may be concerned about how the family will function in his or her absence. Assure your child that although he/she will be greatly missed, both you and other family members will be okay. Express excitement and support for your college student in this important life transition. Respond positively to your college bound student's aspirations and expectations and, if applicable, share similar experiences from your college life.
  • Engage in open communication. It is important that you address your college student's concerns and invite questions. The key is for you to create an environment in which your child feels supported and listened to, and that you are available to talk at any time. Show your child that you understand how he/she is feeling and he/she is being heard. For example, you can say: "I can see that you are nervous about leaving for school."
  • Be proactive. Create a safety plan with your college student for the rare case of an emergency. Help your child create a list of emergency contacts and nearby supports, including the university counseling service, campus security, and health services phone numbers. Identify family members or friends who live closer to the college campus as emergency contacts. Set up a financial and practical plan for your college student to be able to return home in case of an emergency. Planning ahead will give both you and your child a sense of security and control regarding the transition to college.
  • Make sure your child knows that help is always available. If your child has a specific need, investigate and inquire about available resources in the college campus' surrounding town or city. Specifically, if your college student requires services for a physical disability, learning disability, or psychological problem, plan ahead to ensure that necessary services are in place after your child moves to college. Make sure to include your college student in the decisions made regarding his/her treatment and special accommodations.

Tips for Your Child's First Year in College

  • Strike a healthy balance. Encourage self-reliance and independence in your college-aged child. However, remind your child that you are there if needed. Allow your college student to set and pursue his/her goals for college and the future. It is important that college students handle some important decisions on their own, such as choosing a major and social activities. Encourage your child to take responsibility for his/her every day living, including managing finances and meeting deadlines.
  • Use and model coping skills. It is also important for parents to model the use of effective coping skills during times of stress. Relaxation techniques include taking slow, deep breaths from the diaphragm and visualizing a safe and calm place, such as a sandy beach or pleasurable memory. In addition, encourage your child to engage in distracting activities, such as sports or hobbies, when feeling overwhelmed or anxious.
  • Stay in touch. Check in via phone or e-mail, and send cards and care packages to let your child know that you are thinking of him/her. It is important to maintain a healthy balance of communication, so as to allow your child a sense of independence. For example, set up a regular time to talk on the phone weekly, or to chat online. Make sure your child feels connected with the family by sharing events and activities at home.
  • Keep your child in the loop. Even though your child may be living elsewhere, he/she needs to feel connected with his/her family. This will be especially important at times when your child is impacted by significant life events and during anniversaries and other important or meaningful occasions. Let your college-aged child know that he/she is still part of the family, and keep him/her informed and included in important family decisions, activities activities, and updates.
  • Give your child options. Discuss with your college student how he/she will spend anniversaries, holidays, and other important dates. Give your child the option of spending these dates at home with you or maintaining his/her normal routine at school. It is important that your college student feels that he/she is able to make the choice.
  • Promote positive relationships. Encourage your child to develop friendships and build a support system outside the family by getting involved in school activities and campus life. Ask your college student about his/her social life and friends, and invite friends to your home on weekends or holidays. Close social relationships and supports are very important during the potentially stressful college years.
  • Encourage your children to give back. Children can feel a sense of empowerment, control, and accomplishment by participating actively in their community. Encourage your child to volunteer and help others.
  • Help is available. Remind your college student regularly that help is available if he/she is feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or anxious. Point out that he/she can seek out help and support from family, friends, and professionals. Many college campuses hold mental health screening days regularly during the school year. Discuss these screenings and services through the on-campus counseling center with your college student.

Indicators of Difficulty with College Adjustment

No matter how near or far adolescents go to college, parents generally stay connected and want to ensure their children's well-being and safety. It is important that parents stay in touch with their college students and be aware of signs of difficulty adjusting to college life and of potential stressors related to this very important transition. Possible indicators of distress and difficulties with college are listed below:

  1. An expressed need for help
  2. Prolonged sadness or depressed mood
  3. Tearfulness, crying, and frequent emotional outbursts
  4. Excessive irritability, hostility, anger, or resentment
  5. Loss of interest and pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  6. Withdrawal from social interactions
  7. Statements of loneliness
  8. Difficulty developing a social network on campus
  9. Loss of energy and fatigue
  10. Agitation and restlessness
  11. Changes in sleep patterns
  12. Trouble concentrating or making decisions
  13. Missing class often
  14. Falling behind in schoolwork or failing classes
  15. Substantial changes in appetite, eating patterns, or weight
  16. Feeling of guilt, hopelessness, or worthlessness
  17. Risk taking behaviors, such as unprotected sex
  18. Excessive use of alcohol or drugs
  19. Hopelessness
  20. Thoughts or statements of death or suicide

Speak to your child if you see any significant changes in emotions, behaviors, or social activities. If you notice a number of the risk indicators in your college student, you and your child are encouraged to seek professional help. You can also encourage your college student to speak to counselors at the university counseling center.

Taking Care of Yourself

During the important transition to college, parents are likely to have difficulty separating from their children. This is more prominent in families who have experienced significant life stressors, traumatic events, or loss. You may experience mixed feelings of sadness and excitement regarding your child's departure to college. In addition to missing your child and feeling concerned about your child's well-being and safety, you may have less daily responsibilities related to taking care of your child. Changes within the family structure may also be prominent, including increased responsibilities for siblings and changes in routines. It is important to spend your time productively and take care of yourself when your child goes off to college. Some tips include:

  • Enjoy yourself. Explore or rediscover your own interests and new activities. By focusing on pleasurable activities and exploring your own interests, you are likely to experience an improved mood and sense of confidence and accomplishment. This also provides your child with a role model of positive coping and decreases the potential of your child feeling guilty about leaving the family home.
  • Stay healthy. Even though your child has gone to college, he/she still needs you to be available to talk and to provide support and guidance. This is especially important in the beginning stages of college and if your child feels stressed or overwhelmed. Maintaining your physical and emotional health can ensure that you will have the resources necessary to support your child. Making a commitment to your health will also help you cope effectively with stressful events. Engage in healthy behavior such as eating nutritious meals, working out, and getting enough rest.
  • Plan ahead. Make arrangements in advance to see your child for holidays and homecoming. Check with your child first to make sure the plans work with his or her schedule.
  • Seek support. Spend time with friends and family and talk with other adults who understand what you are going through. If you are feeling overwhelmed, distressed, or upset and it is interfering with your daily functioning, consult with your physician or mental health professional.