How Do I Help My Teen Adjust to College Life?
Major changes—like living in the dorms—can be rough. Parents Ask Your Mom columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., offers some guidance on how to ease the transition.
When my 18-year-old left for college—about two hours away—at the beginning of the year, he was very excited. But since then, he calls home about three times a day, and has come home every weekend. At the end of each visit, he’s reluctant to go back. I know college and dorm life is an adjustment. What can I do to help here?
In college, I spent nine months in London for junior year abroad. After looking forward to this adventure for years beforehand, I cried with homesickness every day and felt completely miserable for the first two months. As this was the pre-cell-phone era and I could not easily fly back and forth to my San Diego hometown, I had to figure it out. I have shared with many first-year college students that I had one of the greatest years of my life after getting through this painful beginning.
I have worked with many college students struggling with the famous college adjustment. The reasons vary, but it’s always stressful and provokes parent angst! Fortunately, it’s only been a few months for your son and following a few steps can help your young adult find his way in his new life.
Heart to Heart
For the next steps to be most helpful, start with getting a deeper understanding of your son’s troubles adjusting to college life. Maybe through all these phone calls and visits home, you’ve gathered some intel on why he seems to be avoiding his new life, but you may find out even more with direct questions. What specifically is he struggling with? Common experiences include loneliness, feeling out of place, being overwhelmed academically and lost in a schedule where he has more control of his time, and generally feeling like he doesn’t fit in. This all makes the safety and comfort of home especially appealing, but returning to this safety too much instead of forging his way through the transition will make the adjustment that much harder.
Learning to Be Uncomfortable
A key part of psychological health is what psychologists call distress tolerance. This refers to the ability to feel distress and discomfort, and not try to get rid of it. Unfortunately, our modern world is full of escape routes (e.g., Instagram, video games, drugs and alcohol). Difficulties with distress tolerance lead to problems like anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. If there’s any sweeping conclusion I would ever make about the state of youth mental health, it’s that our children and teens are not managing discomfort well. My guess is that this trend is at least partially due to parents rushing to the rescue when their children feel emotional distress. Our children’s discomfort makes us uncomfortable, or—because we have gotten so much better at empathy—we feel their pain too strongly! But this emotional rescue does not prepare our children for coping well with life stress.
Once you have specifics about your son’s struggle, you can empathize with his emotional experience while also nudging him to sit with his discomfort instead of escaping it. You cannot eliminate the world’s escape routes, but you can express trust and confidence in your son’s ability to manage his difficult emotions to get to the other side. Think of other times during his upbringing that he has overcome challenges, and remind him of these examples of his strength and resilience. He also doesn’t need to do it alone—or with you as his only support.
I have personally encountered the range in quality of campus mental health resources, but looking to your son’s college counseling center is a good starting point since adjustment problems are their specialty. Many colleges have also developed resources specific to helping first year students stay instead of drop out. Make these suggestions to your son, but he needs to initiate contact to set up support. Encourage any type of social outlet like clubs based in his interests to help him find a sense of belonging. Prepare him that this pursuit of finding his people can include dead ends, but he can’t find them if he’s not looking.
Limit Trips Home
This may feel harsh, but your college student is not helping themselves get more settled when they don’t stay on campus for weekends. They miss out on the critical part of the college experience, which is forming their social group. I wonder if he is avoiding this for some reason, which you could explore. For example, if the only socializing option appears to be Greek fraternity and sorority parties, he may be uncomfortable for good reason. Chances are, even in this case, there are other students like your son who don’t love these parties and are in the quieter corners of the campus enjoying different versions of fun. He just has to be on campus during the weekends to find these corners.
Set a Timeline
As a starting point, stretch out the length of time between trips home. Then, set a timeline at least a few months from now when your family and he would have a more serious conversation about whether to look for a different option. Not every college community is a good fit for every student. If his experience continues to be miserable even as he goes through the above steps to adjust, he may need to look into transferring or changing course. The specifics of his struggle matter. If he’s not finding a sense of community, a different kind of campus culture could be transformative. If he’s feeling overwhelmed academically, it could be worth considering a less traditionally academic path. But it might help him stick it out longer if he knows a timeline for considering options exists.
The Bottom Line
You may notice most of these strategies require his effort, with some support from you. Part of helping him with this adjustment is not taking on the work of doing it. You will do the most for him by doing less, as he needs to build trust in himself to get through this major life transition. As much as home and family are important touchstones for safety and comfort, it’s now time for your son to figure out how to build a new sense of home, away from home. He just has to find the right new home for him.