Doing the College Transition Right

Doing the College Transition Right

The ultimate test of parenting: sending your child off to college.

As I sit down with an 18-year-old client during his senior year of high school I ask him a few questions:

1. When you were in grade school and middle school, what percentage of decisions did you make versus your parents? His response: “Probably 80% parents and 20% me.” 

2. In high school, what percentage of decisions do you make versus your parents? His response: “Around 55% me and 45% my parents.”

3. When you are in college, what percentage of decisions do you think you will be making versus your parents? His response, after a loud, somewhat devilish laugh: “Probably 95% me and 5% my parents.” 

If you are a parent of a high-school student, this may give you heart palpitations. Funnily enough, when I ask parents the same questions, they provide similar answers. We all know it: as kids get older, they naturally gain more freedom and responsibility, while parents naturally relinquish some of their responsibilities. Parents need healthy strategies to help this process move as smoothly as possible, especially during the steep drop of decisional control from high school to college.

Every parent wants to know that when the time comes they have prepared their kid(s) for their college experience. The hope is that when faced with all the new freedoms college has to offer, they will make smart decisions.

So, say it’s senior year and the reality is setting in…My kid doesn’t know how to do her own laundry.

Not to worry! We’ve put together a list of three strategies to help you make the most of the time between now and when your student leaves for college. Then, read on for three specific topics to focus on in terms of advice and guidance.

Guidelines for Helping Your Kid Prepare for College:

1. This is not just about you. Listen.

YOU may have an idea of all the things that need to be covered before they leave, but THEY may have an agenda as well. When you sit down with your student, own up to the fact that you may not have prepared them for everything that college will throw their way—no parent can! This opens up a dialogue that no one is perfect and asking for help is okay, even encouraged. Make it clear that you would like to hear both what areas they feel prepared in and what areas they would like to learn more about.

2. “One and done?” Nope.

This is not a one and done conversation. Areas where your student feels less prepared may require more time. Find a manageable plan, with small steps, that—again—is designed by both you and your child. Try setting up weekly family meetings before your child leaves for college as a way for them to bring up any concerns and, importantly, things they are looking forward to. Collaboration is key!

3. Be realistic.

Remember that some of these areas may require real change on your child’s part. Real behavioral change takes time, effort, preparation, awareness, and commitment. Be realistic in what you are trying to take on; depending on the student, it may make sense to contact a coach or counselor that specializes in this type of work and can help make the transition to college a little easier.

Transitional Topics to Bring Up:

1. The Essentials.

Students going off to college benefit greatly from having already developed skills related to independence. When working with clients, I focus on self-care skills, as they typically top the list of challenges during the start of college. In our work with clients we have seen that those less confident in their abilities to do laundry, keep their rooms clean, go to appointments, shop for and cook food, and live with roommates have more feelings of embarrassment, guilt, and anxiety, and often higher levels of stress.

Write the above list down, and see which skills are most relevant for your specific situation. During the summer months, strategically allow your kid more control in these areas. Can they go to the grocery store by themselves? What happens to their room if you don’t remind them to clean it? After the experience, sit down and discuss how confident they felt. Remember, your child is still an adolescent and they may not always tell you what they are thinking. So simply do your best by being supportive, patient, and understanding.

2. The “Help” Talk

Parents tend to steer clear of sharing their own college experiences with their kids, for a number of reasons. I implore parents to think of meaningful college experiences that you can use to send a positive message, especially around the topic of “asking for help.” The more you normalize the idea that it is not a sign of weakness or defeat, the more likely it is that your child will reach out for both academic and emotional support if and when they need it.

During sessions, I frequently use meaningful personal stories as they demonstrate vulnerability, provide a model for how to respond, create talking points, and can be major relationship builders with teens (yes, even coming from a parent).

3. A Parent’s Expectations

Whether we like it or not, we are always forming expectations. These expectations and assumptions impact how we handle conflict and decision-making.

Take a moment to think of a few difficult scenarios that your child could find themselves in during college—ones that will bring up stress, anger, etc.. Once you have visualized one, and felt the emotions it brings up, stop. Sit and breathe for one minute, focusing only on your breath. Once you come back to the scenario, write down any expectations or assumptions that could help explain why this occurred, and what could have happened differently.

Then, sit down with your student, and be clear in the language you use. Make this process collaborative as well. Yes, some expectations are non-negotiable (only using the credit card for emergencies, for instance), but if your kid feels they have some autonomy in the decision-making process, they will be more likely to follow through. Discuss everything from money management (budgeting, allowance, getting a job/work study, etc.) to academic expectations—though unless you’re focusing on details regarding maintaining a scholarship, tread lightly here. Allow your kid to express their own intentions and expectations first.

Quick Wrap-Up:

It may feel like there’s a lot to take on before your child goes off to school. But it’s important to keep flexibility in mind. No plan is perfect, and nothing is one-size-fits-all. Remember your experience, and when trying to convey thoughts and concerns, come from a compassionate place. At minimum, use the time you have left to set up at least three to five sit-downs with your child to discuss the transition and the things they would like to learn more about. Good luck, and try to have fun with this! It’s an incredibly exciting time for you as a parent, and for your child as well.

This post was written by guest writer Jonathan Wolf, owner and founder of YouTime Coaching.

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