The decision to continue education past high school is a careful choice for teens and parents. So they should be thrilled with their choice, right? Not always. While some teens are hardly able to contain their excitement, others are clenching their jaws at the mention of the upcoming endeavor. Questions like “Can I make it living away from home?” “What if I can’t find my tribe, people who understand me?” and “How will I know what major to choose?” are usually circling their brains the summer after graduation. It can be difficult to quell their concerns and answer their questions! You may ask yourself “When does this end?” “How can I help?” and “Is this the right decision?”
This post will address 4 particular adjustments teens will experience transitioning to college life and how you can help them along.
If your teen chooses to live on campus, this can be an exhilarating time of independence! Teens equate going away to college as being on their own for the first time without much supervision. This can be quite exciting and has many perks: not being told how to keep up their room, not having a curfew, having their own routines, etc. Of course, this can also be challenging to manage on one’s own; especially if they are not used to it.
For maybe the first time, they have to decide their meals, bedtime, schedule, how and when to clean, manage their time, and how to manage their money. This change will occur whether your teen is in the same state or time zones away. One can expect this college adjustment to unfold in the first semester. This is completely normal. Your teen will most likely want to rise to the occasion and do it themselves. When they do let you in, there are some ways you can help.
Here’s how you can be there for your college freshman:
Keep in touch
Whether they may admit to this or not, your child will miss you and the rest of the family. Sure it may look like they are having the time of their lives on social media, but now is not the time to completely cut off communication. You can send them care packages in the mail full of their favorite goodies and a note. If you can, plan to meet up with them somewhere along the way every once in a while. There is usually a ‘family weekend’ or ‘parents’ weekend’ colleges host at the beginning of the school year.
Short phone calls, text messages, or video chats will go a long way in letting your young adult know that you are thinking of them and they have a piece of home with them. Texting is a great means of communication to show your teen you are connecting with them. This form of communication is one we did not have generations ago. It allows you to be thoughtful with your response and be able to carry on a conversation throughout the day. Be Careful though not to jump to quickly to solve every one of your teens problems no matter how strong the urge. It is important to give your teens some time to try to figure out how to resolve issues on their own and seek emotional support from developing friendships.
Not every teen will be jumping at the opportunity to receive texts and phone calls from their parents. Do not take this personally. Your attempts at connection are important in letting your teen know you are there for them. It provides a sense of security and an support network while they swim in these new waters of college.
Teach them the skills and encourage them to use them
I remember people in college waiting for the next time they went home to do their laundry. Their clothes would pile up and they would lug large bags full to their cars. This was either out of convenience or simply because they did not know how to do laundry themselves. Now is the time those “life skills” you have shown your children will be their sole responsibility. They may need a few refreshers on how to do their laundry, how to handle finances, how to clean their rooms, etc. They can google this on their own, but sometimes they may prefer a caregiver’s touch.
2. Making new friends in college
Freshman year is chock full of friendship-making potential. All freshman share the common ground that they are the new group on campus. They also are all looking to latch on to new friends, which for many is different from high school. “Cliques” and social groups have yet to form. To many people, this provides a clean slate. This is a great time for your teen to explore the social lay of the land without any preconceived judgments. They can go through trial and errors with different groups of people to find a good fit. At first, your teen will mingle with those in close proximity (i.e. classmates, roommates, people living in their dorm, people walking the halls). Your teens may change their friends a few times (or more) on this journey.
How parents can help:
- Try to see if your teen is isolating themselves. This can be done through crafting questions like “What clubs have you gone to?” or “What events have you been to?”. It is hard to know how much time they are spending alone or in their rooms. Try encouraging your teen to join clubs on campus or become involved in the community. The more exposure your teen has to other peers, the more likely they will meet new people to forge a friendship with.
- Ask how their roommates are or how their friends are. This not only shows you are paying attention when they tell you about their lives, but it gives you information on how they are doing socially.
- Give them encouragement! It can be challenging to adjust to the social scene of Freshman year. Anxiety about making friends in college can truly feel like pressure. I hear it can be quite intimidating for the shy and quieter teens to mingle and put themselves out there. There are plenty of introverted college-goers that will share this experience.
- Gauge if they may be experiencing higher than expected levels of anxiety or “college blues.” Hiding out from peers and not participating in activities may be a sign they are struggling quite a bit. Encourage them to connect with their college counseling center if you suspect extra support is needed. Not all college students even realize this is an option. They should know this is not a sign a weakness but a way to help them reach their full potential.
3. Managing Workload
Oh yes, college is about school work too! At this point you know what kind of student your teen is. You know how they have handled their workload in high school and how much assistance was needed. Some students experience college as more challenging academically than high school was. Others feel they are prepared for the assignments and expectations.
In college, there is a quicker pace due to the amount of time students spend in a class. Before college, your teen likely had an entire school year for every class unless it was an elective. Now, they have a matter of four months per course. Assignments and exams will roll in faster.
If a course is particularly demanding, it will call on your teen’s motivation and time management skills. They will be put to the task to balance their social life, academics, and any other obligations. Most college students will say they feel stressed with their work. This is particularly true at the end of the semesters.
How you can help:
- Impart some tips for time management. They will have a syllabus at the beginning of the semester from every professor that will provide this information. Suggest study locations such as the library or a computer lab where your teen may feel less distracted.
- Teach your teen how to research resources on campus for students such as writing labs, tutors, note taking resources, office for specialized services, etc.
- Discuss alternative scheduling. If the workload is too stressful; maybe your teen can take less credits per semester going forward. Maybe there is something outside of school that can be lessened (i.e. hours at work or in an extracurricular activity).
4. Healthy choices and lifestyles
All that freedom plus anxiety can make staying healthy a low priority. I am defining health as taking care of oneself mentally and physically. This can mean nutrition, physical exercise, and making conscious choices of how to cope with stress. Many incoming freshman have heard of gaining weight, “the freshman 15”, as part of the college adjustment. It is tough for teens to portion control when there are endless buffets of food available. Teens may overindulge unknowingly which can result in weight gain.
The freshman 15 could also be a result of alcohol consumption in addition to food and lifestyle choices. Even if your teen lives on a ‘dry campus’, alcohol and drug use will exist in college. Your teen will be exposed to parties and people who have alcohol and/or drugs readily available. Your teen may want to experiment or partake in partying. Many young adults will not know their limits and may act upon impulse. This ‘social’ habit could turn into overindulgence quickly. It is important your teen knows the risks involved in alcohol and drug use.
Your teen will further explore their sexuality in college. Many campuses are equipped with center for sexuality and safety. Your teen could use this as a resource to ask questions, get information, or talk about safe sex. If your teen is exploring their sexuality or needing support from other teens, they can connect with LGBTQ clubs on campus. It can be freeing for teens to know their college campus is open and accepting.
How you can help:
- Suggest taking fitness classes for stress management. This is the time for teens to take advantage of the benefits of living on a campus that is fully equipped with gyms and gym classes. I recall taking Zumba and Yoga in college for free in addition to full gym access. Not only will this be a great outlet for stress, but it will help contribute to a healthy body
- Be understanding if they begin to talk about weight gain. This is a touchy subject and can be hard on one’s self-esteem. Remind them of their overall beauty and that weight does not define them. Only offer advice If they ask for specific help on how to eat healthier. You can have a conversation about adding more vegetables into their meals or provide them with healthy recipes.
- Discuss alcohol and drug use with your teen (if you have not already). The conversation can be about safety and ways to avoid dangerous situations. Try not to be too punitive in this approach as teens will quickly dismiss this. If you have a family history of alcoholism or drug abuse, be sure to talk to your teen about their genetic loading. They may need to take precautions and avoid some risky behaviors that their friends may indulge in.
- Research LGBTQ clubs and organizations on campus or in the surrounding area.
Independence, social life, managing workload, and healthy living are just some of the areas of college adjustment your teen will make. Most freshman experience college anxiety at some point in their first year. There are so many adaptations at once! Once they master ways to cope, their confidence in their own abilities will sky rocket. They are adults but will still rely on you for emotional support every now and again. You want them to succeed and be healthy and happy individuals. It is normal at this time for you as caregivers to also experience anxiety or stress while your teen is adjusting. Some of the above tips may also benefit your own stress levels. I wish you are your family a happy college adjustment!
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Julie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is passionate about helping her clients overcome depression, anxiety, and stress. Julie incorporates a mindfulness-based approach into her sessions, helping clients’ courage and strength shine through. Julie specializes in treatment for tweens, teens and young adults.