As your child heads off to college…

This year, a number of the young clients I work with are going away to college. As a result I’ve been talking with both the teens and their parents about the opportunities and challenges this transition presents. I thought I’d use these discussions as the basis for a “big picture” post and in the future, focus in on some of the specifics raised.

For many teens leaving for college will actually be the first time they will be spending any kind of extended time away from home and family. That in itself can be fairly stressful. Even for those who have gone to camp or have been on a teen group trip, going away to school presents a totally new environment. In addition to being away from familiar settings, college life is characterized by less supervision along with greater responsibility for one’s own decisions. Success with both academics and dorm life requires the student to:

  • Manage their time – get to class, meals, regulate sleep, etc.
  • Manage their work load – complete weekly assignments, larger projects and the flow of work through the term.
  • Manage their room and possessions.
  • Get along with people – room and suite mates, dorm residents, classmates, etc.
  • Deal with a wide range of new situations, many of which are unanticipated.
  • Deal with the emotional roller coaster that these new responsibilities and situations evoke.

All parents, particularly those of teens with special needs face the college send off with a mixture of emotions that might be described as relief (finally he/she will be out of the house, and we won’t have to deal with all this stuff all the time) and concern (I hope he/she will cope with the challenges s/he’ll will be hit with).

While all families and situations are unique, the following suggestions might be useful for the parents of any college bound student, particularly those with social challenges.

Stay calm and positive – Despite outward appearances, teens are usually nervous about the upcoming challenges and unsure of their capabilities of handling them. Without dismissing their concerns, or acting as a cheerleader, your faith in their capabilities and the belief they will rise to the challenge will usually be quietly appreciated. Try not to get thrown off by all the small stuff that will come up in preparation of their leaving as well as the underlying emotions that can cause arguments to spike.

Discuss expectations and agreements – By the time your child is going off to school, you’ve probably had many discussions about what he/she should expect at school and what you are looking for as parents. Have you made any agreements regarding the following issues?

  • How often you will be communicating? While cell phones have made it possible to stay intimately in touch with others, is this what you want? Will you and your child be better off by planned communications perhaps once or twice a week where you can relax a bit and talk about a range of issues. Once they have settled in establishing some regularity to the communications with home might contribute to them building structure around their time and assignments as well as allowing everyone to be emotionally prepared for the conversation. Are there particular times that would work for your family to speak?
  • Are there assumptions about academic performance? Does your child feel that passing is the goal or is he/she looking to have a certain GPA. Are you in basic alignment with this goal? Are there any scholarships that have grade requirements that should be recognized? Beyond the performance, students have to explicitly grant access for parents to check on grades when they are posted on-line. Are you planning to look at these? Can you have a good discussion about grades and performance with your child? If this is a difficult topic, prepare yourself so that you don’t inadvertently add a negative tone to the conversation.
  • What are his/her expectations about substance use? In this day and age, kids have to incorporate “official messages” about substance use, along with real life experience in their own social interactions. How exposed was your child to substances in high school? What do they assume will happen in college? Would they know how to handle difficult situations that they or their friends might face?
  • What are your child’s expectation regarding the use of special services? In grade and high school, the school is responsible for evaluating and monitoring progress of special needs. In college, this is up to the student. Often students who have had special needs in high school want to distance themselves from this so they can fit in and be like everyone else. Sometimes they hold this opinion quite strongly even to their own detriment (not even being open to go to the tutoring for a tough class). Is your child open to discussing this, can you together develop a reasonable plan regarding this issue?

In closing, going to college, particularly when it includes moving away from home, is one of the most significant transitions in a young person’s life. Parents know their child and some of the pitfalls that might lie ahead. Being willing to talk and listen to your child, while maintaining an optimistic view, and a confidence that issues can be effectively handled as they arise, will allow for positive communications and help you address even some of the more sensitive topics.

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