Parents’ Involvement Crucial to Teens’ Adjustment to College

When the time came for me to decide where I wanted to go for college, I didn’t know where I wanted to study. Even though I’d started my own little collection of college and university brochures, it wasn’t until the counseling staff at my high school began announcing certain college application deadlines were approaching that I actually thought about what my life after high school would look like.

I asked myself questions like, “Should I go away to college or stay in Illinois?” and “Should I enroll in a large, public institution or a small, private one?” The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to go to college.

After applying to a couple of schools, I ended up enrolling at my number one choice–the university that would allow me to get a look at Chicago’s busy downtown area where I believed I might someday work. In both situations, I opted to live at home and commute to my classes. Given my personal and professional goals at the time, it was the right choice for me.

When my oldest daughter was looking at colleges, we knew that, while her first choice was an in-state school, she wanted to experience what it would be like to live in a dorm with her peers. Due to her social personality, we knew she would not only be content with dorm life, she would probably thrive in that environment. And, we were right. Her first year of college was marked by excellent grades, new friendships with girls from around the country, and involvement in extracurricular activities that fed her spirit. And, I’d like to think that the time leading up to her first year of college helped prepare her well for that first year and helped make it possible for her to have such a great freshman year.

How Can Parents Help?

If you’re the parent of a high school senior who’s starting college next year, I encourage you to do as my husband and I did and consider advice we received from various individuals in higher education. First, we heard from a dean of students at one institution that teens can be most successful when their financial, social and academic concerns are in order. So, as parents, we should provide them with advice about time management, career planning, study skills and so on. If we aren’t equipped to give them the right kind of advice, we should seek out workshops, seminars, books and other resources and make them available to them.

One resource for college-bound teens is The Princeton Review. It offers online programs, private tutoring, and other tools to help them prepare for life after high school. Or, you could do as we did and reach out to a personal tutor who is trained to help students improve their standardized test scores. We knew with confidence that every penny we spent was worth it after seeing that my daughter–who was only able to meet with the tutor for about six weeks during the summer after her junior year–had significantly improved all of her ACT scores when she took it again in her senior year.

When going on college tours, parents should set aside time to not only talk with faculty, but also meet with administrators in financial aid, student life, and so on. The more information we gather during the college search process, the better equipped they’ll be to pick the right college for them, as well as feel prepared to live in that school’s community if they’re admitted. I feel we did a good job of this. I hope our daughter does, too.

We also learned during the college search process about the importance of planning advance to attend as many orientation events as you can. Some colleges have a few events planned in the day or so after freshmen move in. However, others have so many different ones for students and parents, such as activity fairs, health and wellness workshops, chapel services, job fairs, and so on, that it almost feels as though you’re at a conference trying to pick which seminars you’ll attend. This was true at the college my daughter attends.

Since I didn’t want to miss anything I thought would help us and our daughter learn more about the community in which she was going to be learning and living during the next four years, I donned my most comfortable shoes the day she moved into her dorm and did my best to attend as many gatherings as I could during the 48 hours after she moved in. And, I’m so glad I did. During that time, I met other parents and students, as well as faculty and administrators, who confirmed that school was the right college for my wise, joyful and creative daughter.

Another piece of advice from that stuck with me from back then is that we must affirm our teens as they take this step toward adulthood and let them know we believe in them and their ability to navigate the transitional period. In other words, we must let them grow up. (That’s easy to type, but not-so-easy to practice sometimes.) While it’s a good idea to ask them to keep you up to speed about concerns regarding financial aid, housing issues, questions about their health, etc.–and fun to hear about their intriguing professors–we should try to avoid getting involved with their social life. It may take time for them to make friends or get involved in campus activities (or discover that regular post-dinner runs for coffee or ice cream will cut into study time), but it will happen.

So, aside from advocating for them when necessary or offering a listening ear, what else can you do to help your teen adjust to college life? Sending a care package from time to time is an ideal way to remind them they are loved and that you care about their well-being. The best care packages contain such items as the student’s favorite toiletries, rolls of quarters (if their campus’ laundry machines and dryers are coin-operated), decorative stationery and stamps (for those who enjoy sending hand-written notes), gift cards to their favorite coffee shop, and even a stash of their go-to snacks.

My oldest daughter likes snack crackers, nuts and dried fruit. She’s also a big fan of granola and protein bars. You could also include in your child’s care package a few small items they might not have known they needed or wanted when they moved in (e.g., clip-on book, thermal cup for hot chocolate or coffee, computer screen cleaning kit, etc.).

So, whether your child hopes to attend an out-of-state school or stay closer to home next year, remember to stay involved in their adjustment process…as they’re applying to schools, as well as after they move in.


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