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Kids Off to College: Here's What You're Both Worried About

Different generations have different concerns.

Few parents send their kids off to college without worrying. After all, this may be the first time they've lived on their own, or at least beyond your reach. Parental concerns are typical and expected, and as D-Day approaches, they’re uppermost in your minds.

What's upmost in theirs, though, may be different, and it's important to distinguish between them. Yours are about whether your child will be safe, healthy and secure; is emotionally stable enough to cope with stress; will perform well academically; will make the right kind of supportive friends; can handle unexpected challenges; and if and how your relationship with them will change. And given the expense of college, you also worry about whether that diploma is really worth what it's costing.

Lately, parental responses to “What are you worrying about?” reveal new concerns, due to the charged cultural and political climate. Besides random violence, there's tumult on many college campuses, open carry laws in many states, and plenty of guns, legal or not, on many tree-shaded quadrangles from coast to coast. There are protests from every side of almost every argument, whether it’s who should be able to speak on campus or who should be allowed to teach and what, and what might happen if those protests get out of hand, turn into riots, expose students to harm, ridicule or isolation, and make the headlines.

One worry both generations share is the sometimes the malign influence of social media, but the concerns of each are different: Students worry about their self-image and reputation on line, while parents are anxious about the nature and number of posts and images that might deter future employees from hiring their kids in the not too distant future .

Knowing what your kids are worried about enables a proactive strategy for parents, who may then be able to reassure them without putting them on the spot or discounting their anxieties, which are far more specific than yours: They’re less fearful about the new environment they’ll soon find themselves in than you are, and more concerned about whether they'll fit into it. So rather than overloading them with your worries, be attuned to what theirs may be, remembering that finding supportive friends or wearing the right clothes matters more to them than maintaining healthy habits or overspending their budget.

“I thought my first roommate was really stuck up before I got to know her, and we're still friends twenty years later" or ”Maybe it’s a good idea to save some of your clothes allowance until you get there and see what’s in style on campus" is a good strategy for addressing issues that are troubling them instead of waiting for them to verbalize them. The worst that can happen is an eye roll, and the best is that you've anticipated their specific concerns without having to ask.

Remember that no matter how good their grades were in high school, they may be wondering if they’ve bitten off more than they can chew, so reminding them that if they were good enough to get in, they'll be good enough to keep up may address those unspoken fears.

But there are some things they'll have to figure out themselves, so don't even go there unless they bring it up—for instance, whether they'll miss their high school boy- or girlfriend too much, if that relationship is over, and if it is, will that be okay. They may be ambivalent about embarking on a new relationship and uncertain about the sexual aspect of it—how soon is too soon, or where to draw the line between being too free or too uptight. There's little you can tell them about that that they'll want to hear; their sexual values or even proclivities may not be as firmly held as you hope, but those are among their most personal decisions and little you can say or do at this stage will help them make the right ones.

Even if you're anxious about whether they’re strong enough to resist potentially harmful temptations like alcohol, drugs, promiscuous hookups and overpartying, don’t compound your fears about those issues with their own, and don ‘t keep harping on them. Be more aware of their worries about being too homesick to adjust to college; head off their concerns about whether you'll miss each other too much by reminding them that while you’ll both manage their absence, there’s always the phone, parent’s weekend and Thanksgiving.

Because many young adults in unfamiliar circumstances worry about not knowing who they can trust, boost their confidence by telling them that trusting themselves – their own intelligence, values and intuition – should be their first resort, not their last. Remind them who they can reach out to besides you when they get in a jam, feel overwhelmed, unheard or lonely. Reassure them that if it turns out they made the wrong college choice, and still feel that way at the end of the year, they can always transfer.

Thinking back to your own college, remember that unspoken question that nagged you then and may be lodged in the recesses of your college-bound, home-leaving young adult's mind: Is it possible to leave my old, insecure, secret self behind and reinvent myself in a new place? Sharing the ways college changed you - and the ways it didn't - may be the best way to answer it.

More from Jane Adams Ph.D.
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