Managing College Transitions: A Guide For Parents

Help your new college freshman navigate change and loss.

Posted Aug 21, 2019

It’s one of the most exciting, and scary, times in your parenting journey: sending your teenager off to college. This transition is made doubly difficult by the fact that we’re actually facing two separate sets of challenges: firstly, we need to guide our teens through this strange, new experience; and secondly, we need to manage our own fears and concerns about how our teens will fare on their own.

We may feel compelled to try to protect our teens from the danger that lurks beyond our front door, but our concerns for their safety is not likely what they are worried about. These teenagers are learning to navigate a major life change, including trepidations and new emotions they didn’t see coming. While we cannot protect, we can support them and encourage them as they learn to become more self-sufficient and independent.

Stages of College Transition

Letting go is the process of saying goodbye to old friends and old traditions. Prom is one of these, as is graduation. Even packing up belongings, and deciding what to take (and what to leave behind) can be part of the process of letting go. This phase will create a sense of disequilibrium for your teen. Their everyday experiences are disappearing, and they haven’t yet been replaced with anything new. This first stage will culminate in the formal college drop-off, when you take your teenager to their new school. This drop-off is an important moment for both you and them; we will discuss it in more detail below.

The gray zone is the next stage. It starts as soon as you close that car door and drive away from the college campus. During this stage, your teen will be recalibrating his or her sense of self. There will be a lot of questions about who they are, who they want to be, and how they want to spend their time in college. These first-year students will be choosing classes, joining new groups, and formally determining their new identity. It can be a hard time, full of difficult choices and high anxiety situations. In this period, there may be substantial homesickness for parents to deal with.

After the gray zone, your teenager will settle into a new routine, and create a new beginning. He or she has found new friends, joined their clubs, and figured out how to manage their course load (to some extent, anyway). As they establish a new sense of self, they move out of this transition, and into their new lives as young adults.

Phew. That was a lot. I’m sure you have questions. Let’s go through each stage in more detail, and provide you with some ways you can help your teenager through them.

Letting Go

Change and loss are two sides of the same coin. With every new and exciting change come goodbyes, losses, and worries about missing out. We can welcome the changes and mourn the losses at the same time, but it can be an emotionally charged experience.

When you talk to your teenager about loss, ask them what they’ll miss next year. Ask them what they’re afraid might happen if they miss those events. “Fear of missing out” (FOMO) is particularly tough for teenagers because the “here and now” feels so raw and real compared with the mysteries of the future. So even when events seem celebratory, they also mark “last time” events for teens, which can create feelings of anxiety or confusion.

As they experience loss, teenagers will begin to feel increased disequilibrium. It may be hard for them to pinpoint what is causing the feeling, but you may start to notice an increased sense of anxiety, especially around missing social events.

How can you help?

One of the hardest things about helping your child say goodbye to their life is that you are part of it. Part of the past, part of the home life they’re leaving behind, and part of the security they may be struggling to shed.

Accept that this time will be challenging.

Ask them:

·       How can we be kinder to each other?

·       Can we talk about this frustration together?

Learn to expect and accept that this is a difficult time, as your teen becomes a self-sufficient young adult. As they grow and change, it can be difficult to let go of your old habits as the parent of a younger child. Try to come from a place of understanding whenever you can. Remind your teen that “I know you are feeling scared/angry/frustrated, but I want you to know that I’m not your enemy; I’m on your side.”

Encourage your teen to talk about the future.

Ask them:

·       What are you most looking forward to once you get to college?

·       What excites you the most about being on your own?

Be mindful of when you choose to ask the above questions - timing is everything. So don’t ask these questions as your kid is racing out the door to see his or her friends. Instead, ask one when you have a long drive ahead of you when you’re making a meal or hanging out at home. Listen to their responses without judgment and, always, with curiosity.  

Encourage your teen to express their fears and expectations.

Ask them:

·       What are you most concerned about?

·       How do you think you will feel once you get there?

·       How are you feeling about leaving home?

Remind them that with any change it is normal and expected that they may have lots of different feelings that range between excitement and anxiety. Learning to tolerate the paradox that positive and negative emotions can exist together is a big part of becoming an adult, but it’s not an easy thing to learn to do. Remind them that all feelings are OK; it’s what we do (or don’t do) with those emotions that can make all the difference.

Plan the drop-off ahead of time. Dropping your teen off at college is a moment that will stick in both of your memories. Remember to use this moment as an opportunity to embrace the paradox: celebrate their achievements and independence while being sad about the moment when your teen goes one way while you go another.

Although it may feel painful for you both, the drop-off and subsequent separation is extremely powerful and necessary- the power of that moment will not be lost on you or your teen, so think carefully about what words of wisdom you want to impart.

For instance: “Remember to do your laundry,” and “This is your opportunity to discover who you are for yourself” impart very different memories on a child.

If you aren’t sure you can manage an emotional statement before you leave, you can always write something out. A letter left under their pillow for them to find their first night can be equally as meaningful: “When I left you today, this is what I wanted to say, but simply could not since (as you know) I’m a crier…”

Ask yourself:

What “baggage” are you carrying with you that may impact this transition for your teen? Looking inward, try and understand your own feelings about this watershed moment so that you may be more conscious about the ways that you are parenting throughout the process.

What important life skills do you feel that your teen is still lacking? Like most teens, there are likely life skills that your teen lacks. Creating opportunities to teach them how to do their laundry, manage their own medications when they are sick, re-order prescription medications, clean and organize their personal space, manage their money, cook a few simple things, and maybe even learn how to come home at a reasonable time without a curfew can make their transition a bit smoother.

The Gray Zone: Uncertainty

The first six weeks of college are said to be a crucial time for new students to acclimate themselves to their new environments. College is often the beginning of discovering who they are, charting their own course, and trying on new identities. During this time, your teen will likely feel very unsettled. This feeling of uncertainty can be exacerbated by the Freshman Myth, and social media evidence that everyone else is doing just fine.

The Freshman Myth

When teenagers first start college, they are often bombarded with promises of instant best friends, endless parties, and the strong sense that these will be the “best years” of their lives. These promises are propagated by social media, television, and movies. In reality, most girls feel deeply disconnected in their first year of college, especially if they aren’t aware that this transition will be difficult. From their perspectives, it seems like everyone else is having “the time of their lives,” while they sit alone in their rooms watching The Bachelorette or Real Housewives.

The best way to undo the Freshman Myth is by breaking the silence about the loneliness and disconnection that comes with these early months. Reminding teenagers that this can be a difficult time, and helping them to get through it, can greatly decrease the feelings of failure and isolation during this adjustment.

Teenagers often experience homesickness during this time. They will miss their friends from home, their pets, and even (gasp) you. Issues with roommates or dorm life may increase their sense of isolation and removal from the comforts of home. There can be a fair number of tearful phone calls during this time, and that is to be expected. There are things you can do to make this easier on both of you.

How can you help?

Address issues of homesickness and panic head-on. Feeling homesick is a normal part of the transition to college; however, many teenagers won’t realize how strong that feeling can become. Set up the expectation that it’s ok to be homesick. Remind them of their next trip home, and provide them with pictures and opportunities for video calls if you can. For many teenagers, there’s a sense that they have to go home right now, or they won’t make it. Try to ease through that feeling without giving in as much as you can by letting them know that their feelings are normal and help them to brainstorm ways to manage their emotions. As they get closer to people at school and settle into their new environment, the homesickness will fade.

Allow your teen to set the tone of your new connection. As he or she develops a new sense of equilibrium, it’s important to let them control the tenure of your new bond. Don’t call every day (at least not at first). Don’t require your teen to call every day. Instead, let them determine how frequently you will talk, and at what level. Depending on how often your teen reaches out, this can be a very difficult dance. For some teens, daily texts and calls may be the norm, while others may only reach out when they need something.

Ask open-ended questions. Be sure to ask open-ended questions about how they are feeling and adjusting, in addition to the usual standard questions. If you only get a, “pretty good,” when you ask your teen how they're doing, invite them to tell you about their roommates, professors/classes, how they are spending their free time, or even the cafeteria food.

Remind them they aren’t alone. Listen to what they are NOT saying. If your teen is showing signs of distress either overtly or covertly, trust your gut and ask them if they are ok. It’s alright to let them know that you are concerned and remind them that if for any reason they don’t feel comfortable talking with you, there are other options both on and off of campus, including counseling services on campus, local and virtual support via a therapist or life coach, academic support centers, professors, advisors, and RAs, depending on what their challenge is.

Keep your expectations and pressures low. Remember that a 4.0 is likely not a reasonable expectation in college, even if that was the norm in high school. There are new rules and dynamics at play, and a grade drop is to be expected. Try to frame grades as an important part of college, but not the only thing that matters. Especially in their first year, when many students have to take a range of classes, academic struggles are common. Lower grades can also be upsetting to your college student as well, so make sure you ask questions about how they’re coping with the stress of their workload.

Ask yourself:

What kind of energy are you giving back to your teenager? Try to be a solid wall for your teen; a steady, even presence that they can swim back to and then push off when they are in need of support. Sometimes you won’t be able to see how your demeanor impacts them, but it never hurts to be a source of calm and strength.

How are you giving advice? When your teen comes to you with a problem, are you listening or talking? Keep in mind that pushing your teen can often create more resistance. Using phrases that start with “You just need to…” or “Why aren’t you…” can stop your teen from connecting with you to the same degree. Remember that often, your teenager is putting increased pressure on him or herself, and a mindful, steady voice can be the most helpful way to remain connected. Try phrases like “Let’s figure this out together,” or “What would make you feel better right now?”

New Beginnings

As your teen dives deeper into their first year, remember that it is not unusual for it to take time for your teen to feel confident and secure in their new “home.” In the four years of college, you will likely notice a dramatic shift in how much your teen knows and how they think, but it will take time for that adjustment to take place.

How can you help?

Remember your own journey. Take the time to reflect on your own past experiences. Remember what you learned about yourself when you were transitioning to college. Anticipating next steps, and setting attainable goals can be extremely helpful as you support your teen through this journey.

Let your teen set the pace. Allowing your teen to reach out to you (or set up a schedule for you to reach out to them) enables them to figure out for themselves how much support and reassurance they need, and thus helps them to develop the confidence and the skills that they need to become self-sufficient young adults.

Vocalize the good. Celebrate your teen’s newfound independence and identity and let them know how proud you are that they are forging their own path in life, even when their path may not be the path that you had imagined for them. Reminding them of their good choices will encourage them to make more good ones, and to practice positive thinking throughout the transition process. We all need a champion.

Ask yourself:

How are you helping? When your teen calls you with a problem - be it social, academic or otherwise - do you help them by stepping in, or by stepping back? Try to remember that whatever assignment is stressing them out right now can be a tool for learning how to manage stress in the long term. By teaching your teenager how to manage his or her own problems, you’re teaching them how to handle more and more individual responsibility. Asking them to consider what their options are (rather than giving them solutions) enables them to develop the ability to problem-solve.

How are you growing? It’s not easy to move from parenting a ten-year-old to parenting an eighteen-year-old. You still want to protect them; to keep them safe from the outside world. But as your child grows and changes, so must your parenting style. Ask yourself how you’ve changed your strategies to match your child’s maturity. Are you still trying to hold them to the same trust and safety standards that you did when they were six years old? Or are you giving them more responsibility and more trust now?