In my work with college students, I have witnessed wide-eyed 18-year-olds show up at school ready to jump in feeling excited and confident–only to fall flat emotionally in two weeks. In contrast, I’ve seen many anxious, shy, homesick kids work through lots of rough emotions during the hardest weeks of their lives and come out pretty strong in the end. Then there are those who party too much, struggle with the lack of structure, or worse, feel like they can’t make friends no matter how hard they try. As parents, we have very little control over how our college students will thrive or struggle emotionally once they are launched into their first college experience.
So, how do you really emotionally prepare your college student for what is to come?
Tune in to your kid
You know your child best, and you can anticipate their needs during this transition. Think about what their transition was like from middle to high school, or what they were like at summer camp. Think about their current social life, are they the type to have lots of friends and a busy social calendar, or a few close friends and need alone time. Have they struggled with substances in high school? Have they struggled with being independent? Have they had mental health challenges or significant relationship problems?
Check in with yourselves as parents
How are YOU feeling about this transition? Have you always managed his/her schedule? Have you been the one to make sure assignments are completed on time? Have you reached out to teachers on behalf of your child? It is important to check in with your own feelings about this change as well as to consider if you need to take a step back and let your kid manage the details of his/her life more. Many college students have never managed their own lives before and that can be, for some, even harder than the academics.
Get them support outside of the family before school starts
Consider enrolling your college bound student in a group geared towards exploring issues and emotionally preparing for college. Kids learn from peers so a group with other college-bound students can be a great way for them to start thinking about this transition. If a group makes your child uncomfortable, try some brief individual counseling with a therapist familiar with college bound issues and concerns.
Make sure you and your child know where all the resources and services are on campus. Start with the dorm and identify support services in their living environment. Then, find the counseling office, the academic support services (tutoring/advising), and the health center. Have your child articulate what family and friends they would call if they were having a hard time.
At the end of the day, there are limitations to what we can do to prepare college students for this new experience. In my experience, the families who think through the points mentioned above increase the likelihood that college students will thrive and grow.