The College Transition: 10 Ways to Be Present for Your Child

There are effective strategies to help your kids transition to college life.

Posted Sep 05, 2019

If you really think about it, the college experience is quite odd. You take a bunch of teenagers and send them off to a new environment full of strangers and not very much supervision. How can this possibly be easy for even the most resilient child?

Imagine what this must be like for your children. They have just moved out of their homes. They are now sharing their small living spaces with strangers. As if that isn't tricky enough, they are adjusting to new class schedules. They are eating meals with lots of other strangers in unfamiliar dining halls. At night, they are expected to fall asleep in a building (dormitory) full of other adolescents who they have just met or who they will never even get to know. On weekends, they are largely unsupervised at parties teeming with alcohol.

While they are making this adjustment, they are trying to figure out who they should be friends with, eat meals with, and how to study effectively for their classes. At this young age, they are expected to pick a major so that they have a life path. Finally, they are attempting to accomplish all of these tasks while missing family and friends at home. This certainly sounds like a recipe for lots of anxiety and confusion, doesn't it? So, it is certainly no surprise that so many college students struggle with anxiety.

Parents send their kids off to college with high hopes, wonderful intentions, and lots of new bedding, towels, and toiletries. There is then a lot of discussion about how to deal with missing the children and with the emptier nest. I would like to mix up the conversation a bit here. I believe that the emphasis should be on helping the kids adjust. If the kids adjust, then the parents will adjust to an emptier home.  

I would like to offer my best advice for parents. There are many things that you can do to help your children navigate freshman year effectively.

  1. Expect your children to encounter some transitional anxiety and bumps along the way. If your children are describing things as going completely well, then they are probably not being honest with you.
  2. When your college kids reach out to you, do a lot of listening. The more you listen, the more they will disclose. Listen to the highs and the lows.
  3. Ask your children if they simply want you to listen or if they would like you to help them solve problems.
  4. Make sure that the kids know that you are available. Do not assume that they know this. Plenty of kids tell me that their parents are dismissive or unavailable. I'm sorry if that's hard to hear. I'm describing what I have heard over three decades of listening to kids.
  5. Do not make the conversation about your own anxieties. Kids shut down when their parents become anxious. After all, how can they confide in parents who they feel can't manage their own emotions? Talk to your friends or partners about your anxieties.
  6. Pay attention to details. When you have your follow-up contact with them you will want to check in about specifics. Your children will know that you have been listening if you remember details.
  7. Always schedule follow-up contact. You and your children can figure out together how frequently to have contact but make sure that there is follow-up. Trust me. Your kids will appreciate this. 
  8. If you can't really figure out how your children are doing, then perhaps you should schedule a visit. It is very hard to gauge how your kids are doing from phone contact.
  9. If you feel that your kids are becoming overwhelmingly anxious or depressed and that their moods and/or anxiety are interfering with sleeping, eating, and overall functioning, then consider having your kids seek support from the college counseling center or from a therapist who works with college students. 
  10. And most importantly: Have patience. The first year of college will be a bit trying, but the hope is that it will be a positive experience.