Natasha J. Thomas, MD
Is Your High School Senior Emotionally-Prepared for College?
Updated: May 17, 2021
It's May and it's graduation time. A season that is normally chock-full of excitement and nervousness has been complicated by the layers of uncertainty COVID-19 has placed on the world. The disruption that began in spring semester of junior year for our high school seniors has also distracted many families from college preparedness. Is your teen emotionally-prepared to make this transition? How do you know? And what can you do to help?
How Does Your Teen Manage Stress?
Stress is an unavoidable part of life - even the good parts. Teens may be thrilled for their upcoming move, dorm life, collegiate sports, club memberships, and parties (yes, they will go to parties). But even though these things are exciting, they also produce strain. This is especially true when there is an attempt to balance missing family and friends at home, academic responsibilities, health, hygiene, and burgeoning relationships. It's a lot for a person who is just 18 or 19 years old to do. It's a lot for any of us to do.
Does your teen know how to manage stress? How would you describe their coping style? Does your teen tend to withdraw, cry, lash out, sleep, or use escapism? Who is on your teen's "team" of supportive people? Friends? Relatives? You? If you have regularly seen your child become completely overwhelmed with managing stress, and you believe they do not have a good strategy in place, then they may be particularly susceptible to getting involved in distracting practices or relationships to assuage their stress. This typically is not the healthiest option. A strategy needs to be devised before you drop them off on move-in day.
How Does Your Teen Handle Making New Friends?
Now is the perfect time to take an honest inventory of your teen's socialization skills. We know that who we befriend, date, marry, or make as business partners are some of the most impactful people in our lives. Relationships matter. In human development, basically nothing matters more. Teens are attempting to solidify their identity and embrace opportunities for closeness and true relationship from ages 14 through 25. It's that important!
And let's be honest. Some of us parent kids who are very social, but overly focused on people pleasing. Others of us parent teens who consider themselves loners. Then there are those of us who raise kids who declare they cannot relate to people that are their peers, either by age group, gender or value system, and this lands them in vulnerable positions. And most of us have had at least one episode of having to coach and love our children through rejection or heartbreak.
Make no mistake, the social piece of college is major. In fact, in all the teens I've seen struggle with the transition to college, a problem with socialization was at the forefront of their concerns - even leading some to have to return home or sit out for a semester. I've seen it with roommate difficulty. I've seen it with poor dating choices. And unfortunately, I've seen socialization problems expose unsuspecting kids to sexual violence or robbery. We don't want to miss this area!
How Does Your Teen Manage Creating Routine?
The inherent lack of structure in a typical college day requires students to exhibit at least a fair amount of self-discipline and routine following. How well has your child done with creating and maintaining a routine that was not imposed on them by a teacher, job, coach, or you? Most of us would not be able to honestly answer that question. Why? Because we just don't know. We manage our children's schedules from their very first day of life. We make them eat and sleep on a schedule, have them schooled, put them in activities, and then tell them when to shower, brush their teeth, put away their electronics, etc. Most kids do not get the opportunity to practice a self-imposed schedule until college, when the stakes are high.
If you struggle to keep your child on a routine, they are frequently late for work or sports practice, their school work is often shoddy or not submitted in a timely fashion, or they don't show up to responsibilities they've already committed to, now is the time to start practicing.
How Does Your Teen Manage Practical Life?
Between the classes and the socializing, regular life happens - here, there, and everywhere. We have to wash up and dress ourselves (hopefully in clean clothes), we need to have meals, and change our sheets or wash a dish every now and again. If you don't want your child to be unpopular because of hygiene or lack of tidiness, this is not a topic that should be skipped.
And what about money? Have you discussed with your child your expectations for what money they will have access to, how they should interact with creditors, and if they need to work during the school year?
If you know your teen is not prepared to run a household - even a mini one - you have to help them get those skills in place.
How Parents Can Help
So, your job as parents helping teens transition to college is helping them actually transition. THIS is the time for guidance, not control, as tempting as it may be. This is the time for suggesting options and techniques for the above skills - safe and healthy socialization, self-discipline and routine reliance, and practical life. However, it's entirely possible (and developmentally typical) for teens in the last few months at home to not WANT to talk to their parents. For some, it's to gain independence, and for others it's to try to create distance so it won't hurt so much when they leave. So here are three tips you can use in this tenuous time:
Notice I wrote "talk" not hound. If your young person is not interested in talking, that's ok. Just make sure if they don't want to talk to you, they do have someone that is reliable, wise, and safe in their corner. Ask your teen how they feel about starting college, and if they need your help or counsel on anything beside buying books and stuff for their dorm rooms. Chances are they won't at first, but later (as in right before it's time to leave), they will. Be ready to answer them with love and patience. And a little bit of humor goes a long way, too!
2. Create a Link
So, back to that issue of teens not wanting to open up to their parents - it happens. And it's completely ok. But, consider having a series of mentors that serve to bridge the gap between you and your teen. One mentor should be young, maybe only 2-3 years older than your child. This should be a young person who is doing well in their lives, is trustworthy, and shares your family values. Another could be about 5-10 years older. They will be living an adult life and can model how that looks in a way that is more relatable to your Gen Zer. And if you can find one more that is younger than you, but still older than the other mentors, you will have created an awesome resource for your child for every stage of the life that is to come.
3. Allow Room
How will you know how your teen executes the skills listed in this blog? You have to watch them practice, right? Give them a chance to cook meals, do laundry, get themselves to events, date, and have nights out with friends (yes, even during this COVID time because they will have to make this decision at school).
At some point you will have to let them falter, and maybe even fall a little. It's entirely possible they will do things like break curfew, not tell the truth about their location, lie about who they're out with, or make another disappointing choice. Allow them the space to do these things, while they're still at home under your roof and guidance, care, and love.
And a Final Word
Sexual health is medical health. Even though it may be awkward, if you haven't had a sex talk with your child make sure you do before August. You don't want them learning from, and putting their lives and futures in the hands of, other eighteen-year-olds.
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