Culture in Mind

Mental health, culture, and ethnicity

Letting Go For College: A Guide for Parents and Students

Helping students enjoy their independence while maintaining parental bonds

For some parents, sending their child to college is more traumatic for them than their children. Some fear their children may not be prepared to handle the challenges that are before them and others simply grieve for the loss of that place at the dinner table. Some parents start feeling sad long before their children leave and in other families, both parents and children are looking forward with excitement to the new relationship that leaving for college will bring. There are some children that are scared that they are not ready for the challenges that lay ahead and find that their early weeks in college are spent in daily contact with their parents, as they try to orient themselves to their new lives. Some students get so home sick that they want to stay close to home.

Whatever the scenario, there are steps that families can take to help with the transition from home to college and from child to adult.

1. The first thing to do begins long before the teenager gets ready to go and that is to teach the life skills that students need to survive. These include activities like doing their own laundry while in high school, learning how to cook, learning how to live on a budget and knowing how to take care of their health with exercise and nutrition and stress management skills. It is also very important to prepare your students for the hazards of adult life that include, alcohol, drugs and sex. These three issues create more problems for students on campus than parents can imagine. These discussions cannot take place a few weeks before departure but must be integrated over the high school years so that students have had all their questions answered and have developed a relationship with parents that allows them to seek help when they need it.

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2.Set up a routine communication schedule. A regularly-scheduled weekly phone call, email or Skype is usually enough. Too much contact and the student does not have the opportunity to separate. Sending care packages regularly also helps students manage their own emotions with regard to being away from home.

3. Develop a strategy for problem-solving. This should mean that the student is responsible for finding solutions on-campus for their problems and if all routine channels do not work then they can call home. This helps students to learn what resources are available for them on-campus and helps them learn how to depend on themselves for solving routine life problems.

4. Establish a visitation schedule during the school year that accomodates the school schedule that is always available online for at least two years in advance. This allows students to anticipate seeing family and also helps with planning for their assignments and routine studying/reading. Random visits home often interrupts student life in a way that is detrimental to academic and social success. The goal is to have students create a new 'home' on campus.

5. Students should leave home with some treasured things that makes them feel connected and loved. However, as space is often a premium, helping students to limit those choices and to choose something that is more representative of their adult self and less of their child self will keep the attachment whlie keeping a lid on sentimentality that can often get in the way of attaching to their present environment.

6. Parents should encourage and support their child's exploration of campus and off-campus life. The more students engage with college life and the life of the college town the more it will become their new home. It also creates good habits for how they engage with new places as they get older. Finding people that share similar interests and culture will support their sense of self and keep them connected to the familiar while they explore who they are and might become.

Ruth C. White, Ph.D., M.S.W., and M.P.H., is the author of Bipolar 101 and is an associate clinical professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California. 

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