Why is transitioning from high school to college a challenging time for teens?
There are many reasons why this transition is challenging, but first let’s consider age and biological development. Young adults typically leave for college around age 18, which is years before the prefrontal cortex is fully developed. The prefrontal cortex is predominantly responsible for maturation; this includes focusing and organizing, controlling impulses and emotional reactions to stimuli, and processing information while adjusting behavior. These are essential components to a successful transition from high school to college where, suddenly, the young adult is met with new independence and increased responsibility.
College students must identify who they are as individuals, who they are in the context of families, friends, and the larger community, and who they want to be as they move through life. Self-esteem and self-concept are vulnerable to assessment by others, and further complicated by the formation of peer groups and social roles. Add in a roommate or two and not only must college students socialize in a new environment, but they must adjust their living style to successfully live with others.
There are also concrete challenges of independence including: managing schedules, maintaining a clean living space, ensuring proper nutrition and sleep, completing assignments, socializing, and planning for success.
Is it more so now than ever – and why?
Yes and no. It’s harder for today’s teens to transition from high school to college because the pressure to succeed is at an all-time high. Incoming freshmen enter school full of excitement but, typically, with anxiety about expectations as well. The preconceived notion that excellence is expected makes the transition more difficult.
There are also greater distractions (e.g., electronics and social media) that detract from student focus on classes and assignments. While social media may play a positive role aiding the transition from high school to college by offering a connection to home, the images of perfection prevalent across social media platforms increase anxiety and decrease self-esteem. Unfortunately, the discourse around the benefits and caveats of social media allows students to intellectualize and internalize the problems, but fails to diminish the feelings and symptoms of anxiety. When this happens, college students’ mental health and wellness may suffer.
What can parents do/not do to help?
I remember when my parents moved me into Skidmore College when I was 18. They had a hard time leaving – my mom in particular. I am the oldest of 4 children, so this was the first time they had done this. I can still picture my mom looking back at me with tears in her eyes, and I watched my dad take her hand and gently guide her away from me. As much as they wanted to stay just a few more minutes, there was nothing left to do. My bed was made, I had met my roommates, and it was time for orientation activities. It was time for them to go and trust that they had prepared me so that I would be okay. My parents had the right idea.
It’s imperative to let your children try new things, challenge themselves, and grow. You raised your children well and taught them to the best of your ability. Of course, you love them and want to help them every step of the way—but, it’s time for them to discover who they are going to be. They will always be your child even if they come home for Thanksgiving with a mustache or a new nasal piercing.
Learning to navigate this new relationship, one where your child has increased independence and greater responsibility, may not come easily. It is a significant change for both of you. Having a discussion with your child about their hopes, expectations, and fears will be helpful. You may also want to discuss how much involvement they would like you to have, and how you can best support them while giving them the space to explore.
No one expects college kids to have it all figured out, and they’re bound to make mistakes. That’s okay. Whatever your child doesn’t know, they’ll figure out, or find someone on campus (a friend, professor, guidance/resource center etc) to help them. Trust that if they really need you, they’ll call.
As a parent you should love and support your child, and make sure they know you are just a phone call away if they need you. Check in sometimes, but don’t text them every two hours. Have you heard of “helicopter parenting?” It’s when parents monitor and micromanage their children. It’s not a good thing. Not only will it frustrate your child, but when you do this it communicates to them that you do not have the faith in them that they can do this on their own—that is, they can’t adapt to living on their own, they can’t decide their paper topic etc. They should grapple with their environment and test different ways of solving problems independently.
If you find your child is seeking your guidance too often during this transition, it is possible he or she may be feeling insecure. You can remind your child of their ability to solve problems on their own or seek the assistance of college resources like peer tutoring, writing centers, health services, counseling centers, health services and more.
Remember that this is new for them too, so your child’s communication may fluctuate while they adjust to this new lifestyle. Moodiness can be normal in college and they will probably struggle at times whether on exams, in problems with roommates, or by feeling lonely. While some emotional difficulty is normal during this time, depression and other mental health concerns should be appropriately addressed. If you are concerned for your child’s mental health and/or safety, please seek emergency services.
I can imagine how painful it would be as a parent to worry about your child in any capacity. College can be difficult, but unless there is risk to safety, working through these obstacles can provide immense opportunities for growth and maturation.
Good resources for next steps: book, online, etc.?
https://www.parenttoolkit.com - a great website that features advice for parents and children of all ages. If you select “Life After High School” you will find helpful articles offering advice to parents. The website also provides guidance on how to have difficult conversations with your children relating to alcohol and substance use, mental health, and the importance of consent in exploring their sexuality with others.
The book Letting Go, Sixth Edition: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger is recommended across the country by universities and colleges. Revised in 2016, it addresses the challenges parents experience when their children begin college within the context of today’s modern world.
https://www.nami.org/ - NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) is an incredible organization, with regional and local chapters, that educates the community and advocates for mental illness awareness.
Please educate yourself on risk factors that may present in college. While it is painful to even think about your child suffering in any way, you should be aware of the risks of loneliness, major anxiety, alcohol and substance abuse, disordered eating, reckless behavior, self-harm, unprotected sex, depression and suicide. The more you know, the more you can help.
Important Phone Numbers:
911 – For any type of emergency or immediate danger, call 911. If it is a psychiatric emergency, tell the operator this so they can assist in accessing the best professional trained to help.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 800-273-TALK (8255) Appropriate for someone in crisis. Even if they are not planning suicide, there are trained counselors in crisis intervention who can help.
National Domestic Violence Hotline – 800-799-SAFE (7233)
National Sexual Assault Hotline – 800-656-HOPE (4673)
NAMI – 800-950-NAMI (6264) is available M-F 10 am – 6 pm. In a crisis you can text NAMI to 741741.