Helping Teens Prepare for College Through Communication and Encouragement
Guest Post by Andrew Larke, LICSW
The transition to college has become a rite of passage for many teens in this society. Whether kids are going near or far, this is often a young adults’ first experience of living independently. There are many firsts for college freshmen and this stage of life is ripe with learning opportunities as students embark on a major step in the journey towards adulthood.
Sending your kids off to college is both a scary and exciting time for parents and kids alike. Young adults about to leave for college find themselves at a launching point in their lives. In many ways they are still young kids, needing support, guidance, and help to learn the tools needed to succeed in this scary world. Teens at this point in life often have a healthy and developmentally appropriate desire for independence and separation from their parents. As this is such a huge step for a teen to go off to college, it is a huge transition for parents as well. Many parents are left with the larger question of “what can I do to set my teen up for success?”
A large part of helping support and prepare your teen for college involves having conversations with your teen as a way to support their emotional preparation.
What are conversations I should have with my teen ahead of time?
Talk to your teen about college.
How are they feeling about it? What are they expecting? Listen and be open. College is a huge transition. Feelings of excitement, anxiety, and anticipation are common. Give them the opportunity to talk about it with you.
How will I know if you're struggling?
Come up with a plan ahead of time for your teen to feel comfortable telling you if they are struggling. Be reassuring, and normalize that many kids struggle and it is ok to talk about it if and when it happens.
Talk to your kids about the importance of a healthy lifestyle
This includes many important topics such as:
- Sleep: Talk to your kids about the importance of getting a good night sleep. Sure, we all pull an all-nighter at some point in college, but aiming to get 8 hours of sleep a night does wonders for our brains, bodies, and emotional health.
- Substances: Discuss substances and the importance of moderation.
- Healthy relationships: Talk to your teen about caring relationships with friends, roommates, boyfriends and girlfriends.
- Sexual health, and consent: Yes, these conversations can be a little bit awkward, but part of becoming an adult is taking responsibility for your sexual health. An openness to talk about this by parents can help take the stigma away from having these important conversations with others. It models that having these conversations is part of being a caring participant in a relationship.
- Eating habits: Healthy eating is another crucial part of a teen’s success in college and it’s important to have a conversation about what this looks like.
What kind of support will my teen need?
Another important element of helping prepare your teen for college is looking at their support system. What will they need when they get to campus in terms of support? A support system that is well thought out ahead of time will be more likely to be successful. Do they need a therapist, local psychiatrist, tutors, a mentor or life coach? Does your child need to utilize accessibility or disability services on campus? How can you support that process of encouraging that to happen? Help your teen make those connections in advance.
What should I expect in terms of communication when they get to college?
Different kids will have different needs and will vary in communication style. I suggest having a conversation about finding a set weekly time to check in. College kids can be very busy and it can be challenging to call home. Set up a weekly time to talk on the phone and stick to it. Sunday afternoon or early evening can be a good set time for many college kids, but find what works for you! Let your kids know that you are always there to talk, but having a weekly time is important. It doesn’t have to be a long conversation, but it’s important for you to hear their voice.
How involved should I be?
One major question parents grapple with is “how involved should I be when my teen gets to school?” It’s hard to find a clear cut answer to this question because kids have complex needs and every teen is different.
A story comes to mind for me that illuminates this point. I was at an airport watching a young couple with an excited toddler test out his newfound independence by roaming around the airport. The couple watched as their child roamed farther away, occasionally glancing back at his parents, seeing if his parents were still there and if the distance was ok. I heard the parents sit there and debate how far was too far, when they should step and in and support their child, and commenting how this child would wander much farther than their first child! This is much like the experience of sending a teen off to college: you encourage their independence, but you are still there to support them, allowing them to grow and yet still have the stable and consistent tethering of your support.
Please keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list of ways to help prepare your teen for college and these suggestions are not “one size fits all.” (For more resources on prepping for college, check out these links from Grown & Flown and Huffington Post.) All teens are different, and it’s important to tailor how you support your child based on your teen’s individual needs.
Andrew Larke has worked at Vive Family Support Program since 2007 and currently serves as the Regional Director in Boston. He is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) in the state of Massachusetts. He earned his Masters Degree in social work from Loyola University, Chicago, and a BA in Psychology from Denison University. Andrew has over a decade of professional experience, specializing in the treatment of adolescents and young adults. Visit his website to learn more.
PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.