Preparing to Send your Teen to College

Sending a teen off to college is a very stressful and emotional time. Parents feel a lot of excitement, but also some fear, worry, a sense of loss, and will certainly miss their day-to-day interaction with their child. Similarly, teens feel excited, but also worry, and will often experience homesickness. If you are a parent preparing to send your teen to college, this article offers tips for ways to cope with the loss and for ways to support your student without becoming intrusive.  

How to Cope with the Loss

It is normal to experience a feeling of emptiness when our children go to college. Even though we have diligently parented and prepared our child for this moment, there also is some longing mixed in with the joy as our young adult leaves the nest for the first time. We might feel left out or excluded as we realize we no longer know the details of our teen’s activities and that our teen no longer needs us in the same way. It can be hard to accept that we don’t have any say in where they go, who they hang out with, whether they go to class, and how they spend their time.

With these challenges in mind, here are tips for coping with the loss:

  • Accept that your job as a parent has changed. Ideally, you will begin to view your child as a young adult and adjust your communication with them accordingly. College freshmen always need their parents, but more in a supportive role. They need your advice and encouragement. But they also need – and should have – more privacy and independence. Try to recall how you felt when you left home for the first time and act in a way that your appreciated from your own parents or that you wish your parents had done.
  • Be patient with yourself. Adjusting to your teen being gone takes time to get used to. Expect that some days will be better than others, and be kind to yourself on the hard days.
  • Redirect your time and energy. Think about interests, hobbies or other creative outlets that have been neglected while focusing your time and energy on raising children and put your attention on those. Reconnect with friendships. Start filling your life with new activities so that you are not tempted to intrude in your young adult’s life.
  • Connect with other parents in the same stage. Finding a support system of people who are going through the same thing is really helpful.
  • Embrace your role as a guide rather than as a decision-maker. There can be a lot of excitement and joy in encouraging your teen to explore their own interests and individuality. Never suggest that your college student should follow your dreams or dreams you have for them. This is a time of self-discovery for your college student. Allow the process to unfold naturally without you dictating the path. When our children move out, we must allow them to make their own decisions. Think of yourself as a coach and throw yourself into this new role!

What Parents Should Do Before Their Teen Leaves for College

There are a few conversations you should have with your teen before you drop them off at college:

  • Establish your expectations. Carefully consider what you expect from your college student and express them directly before your teen heads off to school. For example, if you expect your student to come home during school breaks instead of traveling, establish that upfront.
  • Create a communication plan. It’s important to establish ground rules for communication that you both agree on. How often will you talk? Will you use phone or videochat? Who will initiate the call? How often is texting or emailing acceptable? It’s best if you invite more communication (“I’m here anytime you want to talk”) but that you require a minimum (“I will worry if I don’t hear from you at least once a week”). The goal is to allow your teen the freedom to communicate with you when they feel they need too, but also allow you the comfort and security of knowing you have a time set when you can connect with them. By establishing these guidelines ahead of time, you will be less tempted to call your college freshman every day. Additionally, your teen will realize that it is still important to check in with you on a regular basis.
  • Ask open-ended questions about their concerns. Your teen is probably feeling a mix of excitement and anxiety about leaving home. Try to have open conversations about how your teen is feeling and what they are worrying about. Teaching a teen how to recognize and name what they are feeling is the first step in instructing them in how to care for themselves emotionally. Additionally, it will allow you to provide reassurance in their specific areas of concern.
  • Remind them of strengths. Provide encouragement to your teen by listing their strengths, reminding them of past challenges they have overcome, and expressing confidence in their abilities.
  • Discuss safety and values. Ideally, you have been sharing your thoughts on issues such as sex, drinking, cybersafety, and drugs throughout their life, but you should take the time to remind them where you stand and what precautions they should take to stay safe on campus.
  • Discuss self-care. If you haven’t already, you should talk to your teen about the impact our habits have on our mood and success. We are our best selves when we eat healthy, get plenty of sleep, exercise, and limit drugs and alcohol. Taking care of ourselves physically has a profound impact on how we feel mentally. Also discuss healthy coping skills for relieving stress, such as taking a walk, breathing exercises, journaling, exercising, reading, or doing a creative activity.
  • Discuss managing health. Now that your teen will be on their own, they need to know what to do if they injure themselves or get the flu or feel depressed. Provide your teen with a lesson in first aid, explanations of when to see a doctor, the signs of depression and other mental disorders, and a basic understanding of insurance information and how to fill prescriptions. Talk to your teen about setting up regular check-ups with their primary care physician, dentist, eye doctor, and/or other physicians and give your teen responsibility for setting up those appointments. Finally, explain that, once your teen turns 18, their healthcare information is private. If they want the doctor to be able to talk to you, they must give permission.
  • Familiarize your teen with college health services. Before your teen heads off to college, make sure they know where the college health services are and how to access them. There should be a counseling center for mental health issues and a clinic for physical health issues on campus.

What Parents Should Do After Their Teen Leaves for College

Once your teen is at college, parents should strive to be supportive without becoming intrusive. Here are some great tips for what parents should do:

  • Be patient with mistakes. Inevitably, your college freshman will not always make the best choices. It’s important that your child knows that you support them, no matter what. Remind both yourself and your college freshman that making mistakes is part of life and that, often, our most important life lessons are learned from our mistakes. Encourage and accept your student’s ability to make independent decisions.
  • Don’t try to “fix” everything. As a parent, most of us jump in at the first sign that our teen is distressed. We want to rescue our child from every negative event or feeling, but that actually doesn’t serve them well. Learning to overcome obstacles builds their confidence. So, let them be responsible for fixing their own problems. When they tell you about a problem, remember that it will sound much worse when you’re far apart, and rather than swooping in for the rescue try validating your young adult’s feelings so that they feel understood. Ask if they want to brainstorm ways to solve it together, but don’t take over. Tell them you believe they are more than capable of handling the situation.
  • Send love from home. Every college kid loves to get packages and real mail. Whether you send a heartfelt letter, their favorite treat with a note, or an elaborate care package, your college student will greatly appreciate it.
  • Take advantage of Parent’s Weekend. This is a free invitation to visit your college freshman and one where you will likely be welcomed. It gives you something to look forward to after you drop them off and it gives them a chance to show you the campus and tell you all about their first few months.
  • Provide assistance when needed. Always be available to talk to your student and provide love, support and guidance. If you suspect your college student is struggling with a mental health issue like depression or anxiety, be sure you do what you can to connect them with the proper resources at college.

Here are some great tips for what parents should NOT do:

  • Do not give them wake-up calls. Your teen is a young adult now and should be able to get up for their classes on their own. They might oversleep occasionally but that’s part of learning to become a self-sufficient, responsible adult. If they struggle with getting up in the morning, suggest tools, such as an alarm clock that shakes the bed or has a very loud alarm, but let them determine how best to solve the problem.
  • Do not contact any of their professors. Hopefully you encouraged your teen to advocate for themselves with their teachers in high school, but if not, it’s time for your student to learn. Your college freshman must reach out to their professors on their own. If they reach out and get an unsatisfactory answer, they can contact the Dean of Students for help.
  • Do not embarrass them on social media. Even though you might follow your child on social media platforms, it does not give you the right to embarrass them. You shouldn’t post things about them without their consent, including pictures from their childhood or calling them out for a post you consider offensive or alarming.
  • Do not text your teen every day. While text messages can be a really quick way to connect with your student and help them still feel like an important part of the family, sending messages just for the sake of sending them gets really annoying and your teen will start to ignore your communication altogether. You need to give your child some space and freedom.
  • Do not make a surprise visit. No one likes a surprise visit, especially not a college student. Remember, they likely have plans and if you surprise them with a visit, they will feel obligated to spend time with you. If you are going to be near the campus and want to stop by, ask permission a few days in advance. Keep in mind, your teen will want to clean up their room, hide anything they do not want you to see, and make sure their friends (and significant other, if they have one) are on high alert.

Final Thoughts…

As children head off to college, parents must start shifting their mindset from a caretaking role to a coaching role. You don’t have to “let go” of your child. You’re not out of the picture at all! It’s just that your role shifts. Your child still needs you to guide them, mentor them, provide feedback, and become a good sounding board. Though it’s completely normal to experience grief and to feel sad not being part of their daily life, we should still remember that they are fulfilling the goals we had for them since they were born.

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