Outreach: college transition

Young woman bringing items into a college dormitory

For Sadie,* going off to college meant staying focused on academics and music, as well as meeting new friends along the way. Arriving on campus, she felt overwhelmed and lonely at times. The amount of work required outside of class was more than expected, and when she wasn’t studying, she was more concerned about sleep than socializing. Sadie had close friends through playing in the high school band, but because of her demanding new schedule, she lost touch with many of them. Sadness set in and over winter break, Sadie was reconsidering her first-choice college; she was even thinking about not returning for the spring semester. Unfortunately, Sadie’s story is not unique.

The upheaval and change that occur during this transition to college are a daily dose of reality for college freshmen. They must learn how to self-regulate when deciding between parties and studying; they will need to budget their money, perhaps for the first time in their lives; they may be battling homesickness and loneliness.

Surrounded by peers who are dealing (some not successfully) with the same challenges, and the rather loose structure of college (no adult mentorship, professors who don’t follow up when a student is not in class), it is no wonder that levels of stress and anxiety increase. How can you support them?

First, help them find an adult mentor; a trusted coach, a favorite high school teacher, a safe adult. While dorms have resident assistants, these are people closer to your child’s age, and probably going through many of the same struggles. A trusted adult, other than a parent, can provide a unique perspective and honest communication for your child as they navigate this uncharted territory.

Work with your child over the summer to master some of the everyday skills they’ll need while living at college. If you haven’t already, spend some time going over life skills such as doing laundry, choosing food plans, sleep hygiene, managing any necessary medication, dealing with IT issues. Take the time to help your child understand that when basic skills are handled prior to landing on the “quad,” another level of stress is removed from the equation.

Spend time talking about ways to handle stress; how to deal with getting sick and coping with emotional matters that will inevitably arise. Discuss where to turn for help. Research health services (both physical and mental) prior to arriving on campus; help your child know the lay of the land around the campus. Other research tells us that having realistic expectations and feeling prepared can mitigate stress. Be aware that prior mental health issues can be aggravated by the normal stressors of college transition. Plan with your child how to handle any current issues, while taking time to address where to go for help with a sudden recurrence of symptoms.

Been there, done that? Discuss what your expectations were. When were they met; when did they fall short? Maybe you had a wonderful experience; don’t forget to share the lows too. Didn’t attend college? Share your real-world experiences of transitioning to adulthood during those years. Your child should understand that the next four years will be a challenging time. Hearing about highs and lows from your experiences normalizes their own challenges.

*Sadie represents a typical teenager and does not correspond with any specific case.

Outreach Teen & Family Services is a nonprofit, confidential counseling service. We offer programs to youth ages 5 to 21, parents and families in a welcoming environment. 412-561-5405. This column is partially underwritten by the Mt. Lebanon Police Association.