From High School Student to College Student: How to Best Support Your Teen (Part One)

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The transition from high school to college can be thrilling, scary, and overwhelming for both parents and their young adult children. This transition often begins during the junior year of high school as intensity of coursework increases and families begin college visits. For some students, this transition can be an exciting time of exploration and self discovery. For others, the transition can be overwhelming, unsettling and anxiety producing.

As parents of teens, there is often an urge to step in and prevent our children from experiencing uncomfortable emotions and situations and fix their problems. It is important to remember that the transition from high school to college is a developmental task, just like learning to walk, read or navigate friendships.

Your teen’s ability to navigate applying, choosing, planning and progressing through their undergrad career is one step into life as an adult. Understanding this and letting go of the urge to offer more support than your young adult may need is challenging and will likely trigger worry related to how your teen’s success may reflect on your parenting ability.

As a parent, allow yourself the time and space to acknowledge that this is a time of transition for both you and your child. Expect to have some anxiety regarding watching your child navigate this part of life. When these anxious feelings or worries arise, take a moment to label these emotions, aka “name it to tame it” by using the following steps:

  1. When you first notice the worry thoughts, take a moment to tell yourself: “My body is telling me I’m anxious, scared, etc. (deep, slow breath in).
  2. Give yourself space to notice the thoughts that were triggering the anxiety: “I’m having the thought that: insert thought (deep, slow breath in).

helping your child transition to college

What Can I Do to Help?

Being intentional about your role in your teen’s transition to college can help them develop a deeper sense of self confidence and critical thinking skills as they navigate this time. Open communication is critical and will look different than communication that may have occurred in the past. Here are some tangible steps for you to take to facilitate a smooth transition:

  1. During their junior and senior years, begin to schedule occasional check in times with your teen and be curious about how your teen is feeling as they enter this new phase of life.
  2. During these check-ins, allow yourself to step back from the driver’s seat to become a passenger as your teen takes over, even though it may feel new and uncomfortable.
  3. Share with your teen that you will always be available to help them and that you are working hard at trusting their decisions as well as their ability to be successful in navigating mistakes and learning opportunities as they occur.

At times, you may want to offer advice or take over a problem that your teen is experiencing. Even though this desire to help makes sense, your teen may experience these moments as you doubting their ability. So, when you have the urge to help, pause and give your teen space to make a choice:

  1. Trust that your teen will come to you if they need support. Remind yourself that you have built a secure base throughout your teen’s life in which they could go to you for help and support.
  2. Trust that they know that a support net is there.
  3. Validate their desire to navigate this transition on their own and share with them that you believe that they can do this.
  4. Be your child’s cheerleader during these moments!

Be open about your own experience as a college freshman if this is applicable. Share that at times, there may be feelings of loneliness and isolation during those first few months as they navigate development of new friendships. Remind them that feeling homesick can be a normal part of the college experience and just like other emotions, it often dissipates with time. Brainstorm with your teen ways that they can become involved in the campus community and steps that they can take to manage these emotions when they occur. Remind them that they are not alone in this journey and have support both at home and on campus.

Stay curious about how they are experiencing this transition. Helpful questions to ask your teen:

  1. What are you most looking forward to once you get to college?
  2. What excites you the most about being on your own?
  3. How are you feeling about leaving home?
  4. What are you most concerned about?

Ensure that you as a parent are getting the support you need during this time as well. Not only is your child’s identity shifting and changing, your identity as a parent is also changing and shifting! Allow yourself time to feel and express the emotions that may surface for you, whether this is sadness, grief, fear, or excitement. Connect with other parents who are also going through similar changes as parents to deepen a sense of community. Just like your teen, you also may need a cheerleader at times.

Blog written by Sentier therapist Becky Lawyer, MA, LPCC, LPC.

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