For Pete,* going off to college meant staying focused on academics and athletics, as well as meeting new friends along the way. Arriving on campus, he felt overwhelmed and lonely at times. The amount of work required outside of class was more than he expected, and when he wasn’t studying, he was more concerned about sleep than socializing. Pete had close friends from high school but because of his demanding new schedule, he lost touch with many of them. Sadness set in, and over winter break, Pete was reconsidering his choice of college and even thinking about not returning for the spring semester. Unfortunately, Pete’s story is
The upheaval and change that occur with this transition are a daily dose of reality for college freshmen. They must learn how to self-regulate when deciding between parties and studying; they 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 with the same challenges and the rather loose structure of college, it is no wonder that levels of stress and anxiety increase. How can you support these students?
First, help them find an adult mentor: a trusted coach, a favorite high school teacher. Athough dorms have resident assistants, these are people closer to your child’s age and might be 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 kids over the summer in mastering some of the everyday skills they’ll need while living at college. If you haven’t already done so, spend some time going over life skills such as laundry, choosing food plans, managing any necessary medication, dealing with IT issues.
Talk about ways to handle stress; how to deal with getting sick and coping with emotional matters that will inevitably arise. 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 if symptoms should suddenly reoccur. Having realistic expectations and feeling prepared can mitigate distress.
Discuss your own college experience—what your expectations were, when were they met; when did they fall short? If you 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.
*Pete represents a typical teenager and does not correspond with any specific case in order to protect patient anonymity.
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