Moving is a stressful experience for anyone. Yet, each fall more than 20 million families send their children off to college—taking the leap to a new, unknown environment and likely to face new routines, new attitudes and perspectives, and new stressors. Young adults can be especially susceptible to feeling nervous and at times inadequate during the transition.
In this guest post clinical psychologist Debby Fogelman offers conversations to have and practical ways that parents can help their college-aged children prepare before starting their new adventure on a college campus. Clearly, sending your child go off to college requires much more from parents than moving gear into a dorm room.
Dr. Fogelman’s advice:
It is not uncommon for college-bound kids, who were high achievers and self-confident in high school, to lose their confidence, doubt their ability to succeed, and even question their likability once they get to college. Some anxiety or self-doubt is normal.
For students who are unprepared, adjusting can be unsettling. At college, the stress of being away from home may create a false belief that they are inadequate and unable to succeed. Irrational beliefs can easily render any person vulnerable to anxiety and depression or lead to destructive coping behaviors.
Helpful Transition Insights to Share
Here are 15 concepts and pointers you will want to share and talk about with your child to help prepare him or her for the transition from being a big fish in a small pond to being a little fish in a big ocean.
1. Make sure that their expectations are realistic so the challenges and associated feelings of self-doubt they will certainly experience during this new stage are understood as being normal and expected. If your child didn’t need to apply much effort in high school to succeed, alert him to what’s coming: new and more difficult academic demands that can leave a Freshman feeling discouraged and defeated. Your son or daughter may falsely conclude that she is not smart enough, and effort would be futile.
2. Since it’s normal for fleeting feelings of self-doubt to occur, explain that a feeling is not evidence or an indication of reality. Also, caution your child against the tendency to make comparisons as a way to try to feel more secure. People aren’t created equally, and we can all find ourselves deficient in some way.
3. College stress is a given and can be managed by exercising self-care, eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and engaging in some form of exercise or other stress-relieving activity.
4. Stress magnifies negative thinking and a common pattern for students to be aware of is black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking. In the college setting, this might mean that when a grade or one’s performance is disappointing or falls short of a hoped-for expectation, it is seen as a complete failure. Remind your child that when they were little they weren’t able to use a fork or tie their shoes after their first attempt; rather, it took time to master those skills. Help your child recognize that there are degrees of success, and perseverance will almost always results in improvement.
5. You might want to explain that grades are not a measure of self-worth or potential, or an accurate gauge of future success. Some people are better test takers than others. Most important are work ethic, integrity, and a can-do attitude—these are the traits that are more predictive of success.
6. Disappointments are inevitable and should not be viewed as an indication of a never-ending cycle of defeat. Encourage your child to pay attention to self-talk or chatter, and to recognize that words like “never” and “always” are not helpful; such words will cause anxiety and a sense of hopelessness. Thoughts influence feelings, so changing your thoughts can change your feelings.
7. Limitations and disappointments are not the same as failures and flaws. Even the most accomplished person is not equally strong in all areas. Encourage your child to use him or herself as a yardstick in order to gauge improvement, instead of comparing performances with others.
8. Educate your child that avoidance as a strategy, when feeling stressed and uncomfortable, is not helpful; it may bring temporary relief, but in the long run will magnify the threat of whatever is being avoided. When you choose to avoid a situation, you silently convince yourself there is danger associated with that situation, and you will not be able to cope. It’s important for your child to understand that the anxiety experienced is not from a real threat—like being held up at gunpoint—but rather a feeling. Feelings are transitory and not dangerous, and will subside. Urge your child to push through.
9. Discuss that doing something new is scary for everyone and even though others may look unaffected on the outside, they are likely feeling what your child is feeling on the inside. Caution her not to jump to the conclusion that there is something wrong because other people appear happy, confident, and adjusting easily when they are not.
10. If you have been your child’s advocate for many of his growing up years, assertiveness lessons will be helpful. Take living with roommates as one example. Your child must learn the skill of expressing her feelings in a direct and respectful way. When a roommate oversteps a boundary or disregards her feelings, by inviting a third person into the room to spend the night, or being excessively messy, for instance, teach your child that it is best to address the issue sooner rather than later…before resentment sets in.
11. Procrastination is a red flag. It is usually a sign of feeling overwhelmed and fearing failure. Procrastination, though, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy because if your child waits until the last minute his work, the product will likely be lacking. Suggest your child breaking down the task into small, manageable steps that can easily be completed. There is a famous meme: a long journey always begins with a small step.
12. Learning to problem solve is a vital coping skill: You teach your child to define problems so they aren’t vague and he can come up with possible solutions. Recommend your child think about having a “Plan B” in his head when he notes a problem since things don’t always go the way you want or expect.
13. Going to college is already an adjustment; it is easy to feel alone and filled with self-doubt. Kids don’t need these feelings getting exacerbated by social media. Encourage your son or daughter to limit social media because when people feel insecure it is easy to withdraw and substitute virtual relationships for real ones.
Those who are on social media often are at risk for attaching their self-worth to the attention they get on these platforms and to the pictures they see. Remind your college-bound student that the images posted are carefully selected to portray a desired façade, and to elicit admiration, even envy.
14. Convey that there is no shame in needing extra support during stressful times. Your child may think that asking for help is a sign of weakness or means there is something wrong with him. Express to your child that this is not true, and emphasize that having the ability to ask for help is a sign of strength and a healthy coping strategy. Talking about the option of going to the college-counseling center if she is in distress, because most situations are more easily tolerated when not endured alone.
15. Finally, help your child learn to laugh at him or herself, instead of feeling embarrassed or ashamed of difficulties or limitations. None of us is perfect, and paradoxically by accepting our quirks and shortcomings we will come to see ourselves as being perfectly adequate.