Written by: Bob Conlon, LCSW, CEAP
As I prepare to send my last high school graduate to college, I have been considering the issues related to the move up from high school to college and its unique stressors.
The transition from high school to college entails many changes and is often stressful for both students and parents. Students are facing significant changes in their lives, with a new sense of autonomy and freedom to make their own choices. Parents may feel their guidance and ability to help their child develop into better decision makers are diminished. They may have concerns about the student’s living situation, activities away from home, safety and personal well-being.
The Stressed Freshman
Most high school students experience anticipatory anxiety during their senior year or over the summer prior to college. This is especially true for students that are going away to school. Leaving home for the first time means more than packing belongings to settle in a new environment. There are multiple factors that affect first-year college students, including:
- Separation: High school graduation means students are separating from familiar activities, such as their participation in school sports, clubs and community organizations. More importantly, they are leaving their high school friends and family for a situation where they don’t know what to expect. While colleges and universities have worked very hard over the past few years to develop a method to introduce and connect roommates, it is still a challenge and this new relationship may be tested early and often once students move in together.
The notion of an extended support structure can be fairly challenging, particularly if the student does not know anyone or very few at the college. It is important that students recognize how friendships are developed and to choose friends wisely. That being said, texting, e-mail and the internet have made it considerably easier for friends to stay in touch with each other long after they leave high school.
- Independence: Newfound freedoms and a different environment are exciting, but at the same time frightening. Students who feel sad and lonely may use this independence in unhealthy ways, possibly experimenting with abusive substances that can mask their sense of displacement from home and friends.
- Organization: The organization of daily life at college-setting up a dorm room, scheduling classes, shopping, and laundry – may be entirely new to students living on their own for the first time. Some students may be prepared to meet this challenge; others may not.
How Parents Can Help
A foundation of open and honest communication between parent and child will help immensely when it is time for the transition to college. By discussing issues of responsibility, finances, time management, social activities and study skills, parents can continue to influence the choices a student makes, both academically and socially. Scheduling routine communication through texts, phone calls, e-mail and visits will help assuage concerns throughout the college years.
That being said, this is a good time to develop healthy boundaries, strengthen decision making skills and prepare your student for the “real world” of heightened expectations, preparation and positive communication. Gently encouraging your student to “step up” to try new experiences, join a new activity or develop a new passion without 24 hour contact to gauge progress, “check in” or get updates will help both parents and students strengthen their relationship. Letting the student vent about their experiences in a supportive way, without giving a “solution,” is usually more helpful to both of you in the long run.
One of the most important actions parents can take initially is to understand and relate to the needs of their child to the size of the colleges and universities under consideration. Some high school graduates are prepared to make the leap to a university; others may be better served by a smaller college. While this decision is already made by this point, it may have to be revisited if your student fails to thrive in this new environment. Given the investment that is higher education, do not wait too long to see if things turn around. It will definitely stress the family system, particularly if communication becomes difficult due to disagreements about grades, cost and other issues.
The location of the college or university also may be critical to a student’s success. Many schools are located in communities with their own environmental stressors, such as higher crime rates or a nightlife that offers opportunities for students to stray from healthy lifestyles. This may not have seemed as big a deal in the initial stages of application, acceptance and orientation. In addition, parental anxiety will be diminished if they feel as comfortable with the surrounding community as they do with the college.
According to collegeparentalcentral.com “no matter what your student is telling you, no matter how upset your student may be, she needs you to be calm right now. She needs you to be the strong one. Don’t escalate the situation or her feelings. No matter what your emotions may be doing at this moment, try to stay calm and be a neutralizing force.”
The stress of transitioning to college can often lead to emotional or psychological issues or cause a relapse of problems associated with mental health conditions. Parents and students should address any mental health concerns prior to attending college, discuss anticipated stresses with their mental health provider and develop a plan should symptoms recur or intensify.
Every college and university offers counseling services at an on-campus center or through a network of professional mental health providers. It is particularly advantageous to have on-site providers who understand the campus community.
Students and parents should familiarize themselves with available counseling resources. Most students come under pressure in one form or another during the college years, and counseling centers are set up to provide short-term counseling or crisis assistance when needed.
Here are some other good resources for helping adjust to college life, for both you and your college student:
Bob Conlon, LCSW, CEAP is the Director of EAP Operations at our All Points EAP division in Lynchburg, Virginia.