How to Help your Adolescent Successfully Transition to College

This time of year, thousands of parents are hitting their local big box stores and checking off their college-bound offsprings’ shopping lists: extra-loud alarm clock (check), shower caddy (check), comfy new sheets and pillows (check), bulletin board (check).  In the frenzy of logistics – and strong emotions – that often accompanies leaving home for college, it is easy to overlook broader concerns that can potentially have a much larger influence on success than what brand of alarm clock to purchase.  Here are 4 questions to ask yourself with regard to supporting your adolescent’s launch into this next phase of his/her life:

  • How self-sufficient is my child?  If thus far your child has never done laundry, never cleaned a bathroom, never cooked a meal, and/or never taken public transportation, now is the time to teach them those skills.  Use this last month at home to set some independence goals around these kinds of tasks.
  • How academically independent is my child?  If your child has received a significant amount of support from you to help him be successful in high school, sending him off to college and expecting that he will manage completely independently may be setting your child up for failure. (And you do not want to be getting late night texts from your student on the night before her term paper is due, asking for help on how to write her bibliography.)  Help your child to research what academic supports are available to him on his college campus.  Would he benefit from regular tutoring?  Study skills and organizational support (sometimes schools offer whole classes in this area for first semester freshman)? Regular check-ins with an advisor or dean? Does she know how to access the library on her own?  Make sure your child knows where to go and who to talk to if he/she is struggling with academic tasks.
  • Does my child have special needs?  In cases where your child has received formal academic supports, again don’t assume that these needs will end once he/she starts college.  Many schools will honor the types of accommodations that students with AD/HD and/or LD benefitted from in high school (e.g. extra-time, taking tests in small groups). However, you will need to provide documentation of the need for and the previous benefit of such supports.  Typically this will include an up-to-date psychoeducational evaluation that documents the disability, and outlines specific requests for accommodations.  (Most colleges and universities define “up-to-date” as having been conducted within the past 3 years.)
  • How does my child respond to stress?  Many (if not most) students are excited to leave home for the first time.  But some are not, and instead find the prospect intimidating and anxiety provoking.  Even those who look forward to the transition are often surprised by how difficult and stressful it can turn out to be.  If you know that your child does not manage stress well, help her to set up a good mental health self-care plan before she leaves. Make sure your child knows that it is perfectly ok to feel stressed, homesick and/or overwhelmed, and that those feelings don’t mean that she is “failing” at being away from home.  Help him to recognize what is likely to trigger his stress reactions, and what coping strategies have worked in the past to self-soothe.  As always, encourage good habits with regard to sleep, exercise and diet.

Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist