Whether your teen is going to a local community college or across the country for school, college represents a huge change. The experience stirs up mixed emotions in even the most well-adjusted young adult. Chances are your child feels excited, happy, scared and sad—all at the same time.
They may be leaving home for the first time without any ground rules or parents to bail them out when they’re tired, hungry or need clean clothing. At the same time, they’re thrust into a new environment with different types of people and ways of thinking. And while such changes are exciting, they can also be challenging.
“For many kids, college is their first opportunity to make all the decisions,” says Melissa Hendriks, M.D., pediatric and adolescent psychiatrist at Henry Ford Health. “It’s a fun time, but it’s also stressful.” So it’s critical that teens know how to best take care of themselves to weather new and increased pressures.
To mentally prepare your teen—and yourself—for the transition to higher ed, Dr. Hendriks offers these seven off-to-college strategies:
- Start early. Don’t wait until the week before first semester to mentally prepare your teen for college. Use the time that’s left to encourage your child to begin make decisions for himself with minimal parental supervision.
- Establish healthy habits. From sleeping well and eating healthy to getting enough exercise, kids need guidance to develop a daily routine that will help them stay on top of their game. Sleep is critical for memory and performance, so encourage your child to get the recommended 9 to 10 hours of sleep each night and have her power down devices an hour before bedtime. Give your child mini-lessons in selecting nutrient-rich foods (leafy greens, lean meats, peanut butter) and limiting unhealthy options (chips, soda, candy).
- Open a dialogue. Have frequent, ongoing conversations with your child about recognizing and avoiding risky situations. Discuss things like making smart choices about alcohol and avoiding drugs and other substances. Even overuse of caffeine can put kids at risk, particularly when combined with alcohol. Talk to your child about sex and be honest about what can happen on college campuses. Be sure to ask your child how she feels about these situations and try to come up with problem-solving strategies in advance.
- Teach basic independence skills. Before your teen sets foot in a dorm, he should know how to do laundry, cook a few basic meals and clean up after himself. Time-management skills are also critical, as your teen begins to juggle these basic responsibilities on top of a more challenging workload. Learning these skills in the months (and even years) before college will go a long way toward easing the transition to independence.
- Drop in. If the campus is close, make plans to take your child to dinner. The goal: To focus on relationship building, not interrogate them about what they are (or are not) doing. Some teens hide information from parents because they don’t want their mom and dad worrying, so if your child does share something that upsets you, try to be supportive and help your child strategize ways to handle tough situations.
- Build a support system. Kids need a strong support network, especially during times of transition. Encourage your teen to maintain his high school friendships while seeking out new friends in college—with kids who have the same morals and values. Suggest your teen seek out a club or organization to join. Many campuses have fairs or open houses where new students can get information on groups that interest them. If you have friends or family who live near your child’s college, make introductions long before school starts up.
- Get involved. Go to orientation, participate in parent programs and visit the student health center so you know what resources are available to your student—even if you don’t think your child will need them. That way, if your teen becomes stressed or needs behavioral health support, you’ll be prepared to help.
The transition to college may be more difficult than you or your child expect. The key, says Dr. Hendriks, is listening as well as talking to your kids, and paying attention to what they’re not saying. Then, if you see warning signs of substance use, anxiety, depression, self-harm or suicide you can direct your child to the appropriate resources.
To find a doctor who specializes in mental health care at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Dr. Melissa Hendriks is a psychiatrist specializing in child and adolescent mental health services. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Centers in Dearborn and Hamtramck.