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Essential Parenting Tasks for a Healthy College Transition

Every student needs their parents' help in facing the transition to college.

I've written previously in this column that every college freshman has mental health needs. While your role as a parent is changing during this period, too, it isn't ending. There are crucial steps you should take to help ensure the transition to college is a healthy one for your student.

There is an enormous amount of upheaval students face at this moment of their lives. They are transitioning from childhood to adulthood, and often from family and home community to a college campus. This brings an almost unending amount of changes to the daily reality of teens, from responsibilities for self-care, to navigating nearly unfettered access to drugs and alcohol, to balancing a desire for independence with new stress levels. For most students, all of this is happening on campuses with no structured adult mentorship, where they are surrounded by peers struggling with the same challenges. That's a heavy load, even for responsible, high-achieving students.

Here are key steps you can take to help prepare your student for the challenges ahead:

  1. Help Them Find a Mentor: Having a trusted adult who is neither a parent nor an authority figure, is an incredible resource during this transition. Like everyone, students learn through experiences, and having an educator who can provide support and perspective is essential. Colleges largely fail to provide mentors of this type, often relying on Resident Advisors who are not yet through this stage of life themselves. Help your student identify an existing relationship in their life that they can reach out to when they need help processing through honest and candid conversation. Consider a high school teacher, coach, or faith leader.
  2. Develop Life Skills Early: The first few weeks and months of college are particularly difficult. While laundry, sleep schedules, nutrition, and managing medication may seem like basic and easy to learn skills, they can become new stresses when added to the long list of other new skills and experiences on campus. In the months before heading to campus, shift responsibility for these tasks to your student. Talk with them about why key life skills matter, the efforts you make to handle them in your own life, and the details of how to do them well. Check in to see how your student is doing with these new skills. Having some fundamental life skills mastered before arriving on campus can take some of the stress out of the transition.
  3. Prepare for Self-Care: Part of stepping into adulthood is taking responsibility for your own well-being. Talk with your student about physical and emotional self-care. This should include how to handle stress, what steps to take when facing illness, and how to identify and handle mental health concerns. Spend some time with your student researching services available on campus, including physical and mental health services. Help them understand their health insurance coverage and how it works. If your student has a current or past physical or mental health concern, talk with them and their current care provider. Students should know how to manage any current care, or how to identify and handle recurrence. This is particularly important for students with mental health concerns, as past conditions can be exacerbated by the stress of the college transition.
  4. Share Your Perspective: By the time they arrive on their college campus, students have been told for many years what they can expect college to be like. Unfortunately, much of what they have been told is either incorrect or incomplete. Students rarely hear that it can be a challenging time of life. If you went to college, share your perspective on the academic, social, and personal highs and lows. If you didn't go to college, share your reflections on the ups and downs of the transition to adulthood during that same period. Hearing the dynamic reality of what this period of life can bring—both the positives and negatives—can be an invaluable perspective during the highs and lows to come for your student.

For more information about making the college transition a healthy process, check out the Jed Foundation's Set To Go website. There, parents, students, and educators will find excellent resources to further prepare for the transition to come.