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Understanding the Transition to College

What your college student may experience:
For your daughter or son, their college experience will likely be a time of increased autonomy, self-exploration and discovery, intellectual stimulation and growth, career exploration and development, and social involvement. During this time, your child may forge new identities and/or seek to clarify their values and beliefs. This could require an examination of self, family and friends and there may be occasions when your child challenges or questions the values that you hold dear.

What parents may experience:
It is quite typical for parents to have a wide range of emotional responses in reaction to their daughter or son leaving home for college. While so much of the focus is on the first-year student’s transition, it is easy to overlook the fact that this can be a significant transition for parents as well.

As a parent, you may experience many confusing and conflicting emotions when your child leaves home for college including happiness, sadness, excitement, guilt, and apprehension. You may worry about your daughter or son’s safety and their ability to effectively manage their new responsibilities. You may fear losing your daughter or son as she or he begins to function more independently and form significant attachments with peers. You may be concerned about how your daughter or son will deal with alcohol, drugs and sexual relationships. Regardless of your specific reaction, talking about these feelings with family, friends or some other listener is a healthy approach.

How you can support your college student:
1.   While college is a time of growing independence and autonomy, your daughter or son still needs to know that you are available for support. Maintaining a supportive relationship with your daughter or son can be critical to their success in college, particularly during their first year. If you did not have a particularly close relationship prior to their leaving home, it is still important for you to convey your support. You may be surprised to find that some space and distance from your daughter or son can help to improve the relationship.

2.   Regular contact with your daughter or son is important. If an issue of concern arises for your daughter or son and they need your help or support, it will more likely come up in your conversations if you are not always asking them about their grades, how much they are studying, and who their friends are. Let you daughter or son know that you respect and support her or his right to make independent decisions and that you are available to serve as an advocate and an advisor when asked. It is normal for your daughter or son to seek your help and support one day and reject it the next. Such behavior can be exhausting and confusing for parents, so make sure to take care of yourself by talking about your feelings with your own support system.

3.   Be specific and realistic with your daughter or son about financial issues including what you will and will not pay for. Discussing your expectations for how your daughter or son will spend money can help to avoid misunderstandings. It is also important to be realistic about your daughter or son’s academic performance. Not every straight-A student in high school will be a straight-A student in college. Be supportive and focus on your daughter or son’s development rather than performance, as long as they are meeting the basic academic requirements.

4.   Having a child leave home for college does not necessarily prevent family problems from continuing or new problems from arising. Avoid burdening your child with problems from home that they have no control over and can do nothing about. If you share these problems with your child, they may worry excessively and feel guilty that they are away from home and unable to help. This places a significant burden on them as they are trying to transition to their new environment.

5.   Having contact information for people involved in the various aspects of your daughter or son’s college experience will be helpful. These individuals may include academic advisors and deans, residence hall staff, and financial aid officers. If a problem arises, call the appropriate person, and make sure to involve your child in a collaborative effort to address the problem.

How you can support yourself:
1.   Recognize that it is normal to have mixed feelings when your child leaves home for college. Feelings of sadness and loss often accompany separation from loved ones. It is equally normal to have a sense of relief when your daughter or son leaves for college and to look forward to some time alone, with your significant other, or with your younger children.

2.   Allow yourself to experience whatever emotions come up during this period of transition. Focus on developing and maintaining your own support system.

3.   Focusing on your own sense of well-being is important. During periods of stress, adequate nutrition, sleep and exercise are extremely important. Setting new goals or involving yourself in a new hobby can be a great way to channel your energy and feelings.

Content taken from: Campus Health Services, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.