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The Gray Zone: Freshman Transition and Stress Management

How to help your teen transition through their freshman year and beyond.

“I just want to be sure I’m doing college right.”

One of my college freshman clients started our session with that statement this week. Naturally, I asked her what that meant to her. She explained that she wanted to be well-rounded. On top of her academics, she wants to make friends, be a part of a community, have fun, and also take care of herself… mind, body, and spirit.

After commending her for her unusually mature and thoughtful approach to her college experience, we explored how her version of “right” was a great place to start. Together, we built a helpful template for thinking about how she could create the foundation for the college experience that she wants to have.

Canva, Used with permission
Source: Canva, Used with permission

Our teens are not just experiencing overwhelming pressure and stress throughout the college admissions process. For many, the stress continues well into the transition, too.

Now, not only have they attained the entry into college, they want to “do college right.” There may be a preconceived notion of what “right” looks like, and when these expectations are not met, their disappointment and subsequent actions lay the groundwork for how their freshman year may go, and beyond.

This time of transition is what I call, “the gray zone.” The first few weeks and months of school are generally experienced by most freshmen as a time of disequilibrium and much uncertainty. Once the initial period of “great expectations” has worn off, the reality of just how different college is from high school sets in. If they have not experienced homesickness yet, they may suddenly mention that they are missing home and their “old life,” six weeks or so into their first semester away.

These first few weeks are a very important time to create a foundation for how to “do” college as they can set the tone for how your student’s freshman year will go.

Your student has many new things to adjust to: much more free, unstructured time; getting used to living in close quarters with others; internal versus external motivation; new social dynamics; little or no external accountability; and living without their usual support network and familiar environment.

During this time, all freshmen are learning to navigate the various challenges that are inherent in this new transition, even though your teen will likely think and believe that he is the only one who is struggling. Remind them that it takes time for everyone to feel confident and secure in their new “home.”

So, how can we help our teens adapt to this new reality while letting them navigate their own path and experiences?

1. Begin by looking inward. Remember your own journey. Think back to what you learned about yourself when you were in college. What issues did you face? What stressors do you recall? What were some of your expectations, and how did they compare to what you encountered?

Sharing your challenges can help to both connect you with your teen and normalize the experience. It is equally important not to project your unrealistic expectations onto your teen.

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

If they tell you about an assignment or social dynamic that is stressing them out right now, it can be a tool to help them learn how to manage stress in the long term. You’re teaching your teen to manage his or her own problems and responsibilities. While becoming their thought partner, ask them to consider all their options, rather than giving them the solutions.

Additionally, how and when you communicate with your teen sets the tone for this next phase in your parenting journey and in their journey towards becoming a young adult. When your teen calls you with a problem—social, academic, or emotional—do you help them by stepping in or by stepping back? Giving them space to decide what support they need helps them develop distress tolerance and learn the self-management skills that will enable them to develop resilience.

3. Be their champion. By providing a safe, supportive space for your teen to process their challenges, you are teaching them that they have the tools to manage their own lives. They do not need to depend on you for all the answers.

Your teen's choices may not follow the path you imagined for them, and that's OK. The more you can help your teen to both identify and celebrate good decisions, the more they will internalize the message that it feels better to make decisions that are aligned with their values.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that “doing college right” is largely subjective, and likely means different things to each of us, including our own teens. Our job is to ask the questions that will enable our teens to develop their own sense of what “right” means to them.

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