We worry if they know how to do their laundry and cook when we send our teens to college, but if we really want them to be prepared, we need to focus on these five things.
Many parents look at their child’s senior year as the “year of lasts.”
Our babies are heading out into the big scary world, woefully unprepared to live independent lives. While we can teach many life skills over the next few months (such as laundry, sending mail, basic recipes, simple sewing, and managing money), many of the things our seniors need to succeed are less tangible.
How do I Prepare My Senior for College
Our role as parents is shifting. As our teens slide into adulthood, we begin to guide more than direct. With that in mind, prepare for some deep conversations, some that are ideal for car rides and some that just happen in the moment.
Have All “The Talks”
We may pretend otherwise, but our teens are thinking about sex, drugs, and alcohol. Adolescent brains are wired to pursue novelty and take risks through age 25, making the college years ripe for potentially dangerous experimentation.
Federal laws regulate alcohol use, but few colleges enforce them; the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that “full-time students tend to drink more than others in their age group,” with about a third engaging in binge drinking. While less prevalent than alcohol use, many college students also abuse drugs, most often marijuana, prescription pills (particularly ADHD meds, which are used as “study drugs”), and “club drugs” such as Ecstasy.
These topics can be difficult to talk about. While slogans like “Don’t do drugs” make good ads, our conversations need to go deeper. Encourage teens to ponder the whys. (And maybe frame these conversations in generalities rather than making it about them).
Is it about the temporary “highs?” Will this help them achieve their goals? How can these choices hurt them?
Talk about the connection between physical and emotional intimacy. Talk about the importance of consent. Get them thinking about their own personal values.
Studies show that parental input can greatly influence whether teens engage in risky behaviors. Share your expectations. Remind them of the values you’ve been promoting throughout their lives. Point out the legalities and remind your teen that at age 18, they are considered adults and will have to face adult consequences of their actions.
Normalize Asking for Help
There are no parent portals in college, and professors won’t chase down missing homework. Sometimes this is hard for both parents and students to grasp.
Inaction can make “catching up” impossible with classes lasting only a semester. Many teens worry that they will “look dumb” or think asking for help is a sign of weakness. They may worry about “bothering” someone. They may be less likely to seek help for social or mental health concerns.
We may have unintentionally made our teens believe that being an adult is easy.
They don’t see our mishaps, and, face it; most of us are bad at asking for help. Reassure them that resources such as the tutoring center need people to come for help in order to stay in business and that college professors are sitting and waiting for students to visit during office hours.
Asking for help isn’t weak. It’s necessary to get the job at hand done.
Additionally, many colleges have recently added or increased counseling services, to address the current mental health crisis among our teens. These services are included in tuition fees and should be utilized.
Teach and Model Self-Advocacy
Once we convince them that asking for help is not a weakness, we need to show them how to do this.
Self-advocacy is a soft skill that many teens missed developing during the pandemic. While it may seem obvious to us, many teens are completely unaware of many available resources, and how to ask for them.
Besides (gently) pointing out that this information is on the college website, help brainstorm who they can go to for different scenarios and how to approach certain situations.
A Resident advisor (RA) can answer questions about campus resources and help with roommate or other relationship issues. More specific concerns may involve a professor, academic dean, dean of students, or counselor.
Remind them that trusted people in their lives now (ministers, scout and youth leaders, family members) can also be sources of support.
The first time you do something is scary, so role-playing is a great tool to help them feel more comfortable approaching challenging conversations..
Teens don’t have the same bank of experiences we do and transferring experiences doesn’t come naturally to them. Talking to college professors, saying no (to alcohol, drug, or sex), being honest with a roommate about visitors or how their environment is kept – all can cause anxiety, perhaps to the point that our teens say nothing, simply to keep the peace. For the most part, today’s teens are busier than we were, so they not only haven’t seen parents perform many adulting skills, they have no idea many of these things even need to be done.
Many teens are unaccustomed to making appointments and have an almost allergic response to suggesting they use their phones to make a call. Like other scary things, this is easier with practice. (Note: you may be appalled at their lack of phone skills and wonder where you went wrong – it’s not you, it’s them.)
Coach them on how to find information on their insurance card and make sure they know identifying information, such as the insured’s name and birthdate. (Note: to minimize surprise fees, also keep them apprised of insurance basics, such as co-pays, covered providers, and whether they need referrals.)
If your teen will have a roommate but hasn’t shared a room before, ask about their expectations. Get them thinking about how things will be different, what challenges might arise, and how any issues can be overcome. RAs are trained to handle conflicts, but like all other jobs, some are better at it than others; being prepared for the worst makes experiencing the worst easier.
Talk about the Multiple Paths Your Child Can Take to Reach Their Goals
We all have the annoying habit of asking kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Some get locked into their childhood response and feel there is no backing out. Our teens need to know that changing their minds is okay – within reason.
Many colleges don’t require you to commit to a major until the second or third year, largely because many new college students have no idea how vast the options are. In fact, even before the pandemic disrupted the labor force, an Indeed study found that nearly half of study participants made a dramatic career change.
Sometimes more than a change of major is warranted – transferring to a new school or taking a gap year may be an appropriate decision.
College is a place to explore topics and find your passions–and ultimately, help you find a job to support yourself. Encourage your student to try new things and take advantage of all that their school and community has to offer.
Share Stories from Your Past
Well, maybe not all of them.
But share enough to let your teen know that you remember what it was like to struggle with newfound independence.
Tell them about any fears you had: grades, making friends, being homesick.
Tell them you’ve done things that you aren’t proud of; after all, none of us is perfect.
Admitting to mistakes or even something illegal (such as underage drinking) won’t make our teens more likely to do the same. It will, however, make them more likely to reach out when things get tough.
All Kids Mature At Their Own Pace
There is no magic in turning 18 – one doesn’t become an adult overnight. Our role as a parent is changing, not ending.
They still need us to advise and guide them; if we do it right, they may welcome that guidance for the rest of our lives.