If your child is leaving for college soon, you’re probably both busy with shopping lists and health forms. You might well find yourself fighting about things that don’t matter, because the enormity of letting go of your child and wondering if he’s ready can make parents terribly anxious.
During the teen years, your relationship with your child has been steadily evolving. You’ve found yourself biting your tongue and letting go more and more, as your teen steps up to manage herself and her responsibilities. This is rarely a graceful dance, since teens can be mature one moment and thoughtless the next. But by the time she leaves your home, hopefully all the love and lessons you’ve shared will mean she’s ready for the next adventure.
So take a breath, have a private cry, and let go some more. Don’t increase his anxiety with your own. It’s important for him to make some of these decisions the way he wants to, no matter what you think. Every time you let him lead, that’s a vote of confidence in his maturity, and he’ll act more mature.
Then, start asking questions, listen much more than you talk, and have some really good discussions. Teaching him to do his laundry and buying a lamp for his dorm room may be important, but those tasks aren’t nearly as essential as helping him prepare, mentally and emotionally, for the life changes and rites of passage ahead. Here are nine discussions you’ll want to be sure you have with your teen before they head for college.
1. Tell your child how proud you are of him and how happy you are to be his parent.
Explain that most of your job is done but that you will always be there if he needs you. Be sure he knows that you mean it when you say that he can call you 24/7 for any reason at all. Tell him you have confidence in his judgment.
2. Listen to your teen’s hopes, fears and expectations for college.
Ask questions, listen, reassure, and brainstorm with her. Point out that this is a huge adjustment and she needs to nurture herself. Everyone goes through anxiety and homesickness as they adjust to college. The best cure is connecting with others who are feeling the same way. Does she feel comfortable making friends? Reaching out for help if she needs it? If she has roommate problems, who can she turn to? How can she support herself if she feels stressed or depressed? What routines and activities will help her?
3. Ask questions about academics.
How will he choose which classes to take? Be sure that he’s taking at least two classes he will probably love, because at least one of his classes will likely be a disappointment. Explain that many students find college much harder than high school and need extra tutoring, help from professors, or regular visits to the writing lab. If he finds himself struggling academically, who can he go to for help? Tell him that getting to know professors can be life changing and ask how he might develop those relationships. Explain that sitting in the back of the class might feel safer, but that professors interpret that as a sign that he isn’t interested and isn’t doing the work. Over-focusing on grades often means students take easier classes and get less pleasure out of learning, so tell her you’d rather she focus on learning and expanding her horizons than worry about grades. Explain that while you don’t want her wasting your tuition dollars, her grades this first semester are not as important to you as her creating a balanced life for herself at college that includes healthy friendships and self nurturing. And since you won’t have legal access to her grades, discuss how she’ll feel most comfortable communicating with you about them.
4. Help your teen think through time management.
Kids spend less time in class during college than they do in high school, but they’re expected to use that extra time studying, not fritter it away on screens. How will your teen organize himself? Where will he study and how much time does he expect to need per class? What extracurricular activities does he expect to do? How much partying does he expect to do? How much gaming? How will he be sure he doesn’t sleep through his alarm? Should he really take that 8am class or is that wishful thinking?
5. Have a frank talk about alcohol and drugs.
Alcohol-related hospitalizations of college students are still on the increase and many experts feel that the greatest risk is in the first semester, when students are just learning how to manage their social lives and independence. If your child will partake in alcohol — as most college students do — how can she stay safe? It IS possible for a young person to drink responsibly in the context of pregaming, beer pong and binge drinking. What will that look like for your child? Does he know the law? Does she know her limits? Do they know that binge drinking, including beer pong, can be fatal? Do they know that every year college students who drive after drinking end up dead? If someone passes out at a party, what will he do? Does she understand the importance of the buddy system? If she goes to a party with her friend and the friend gets very drunk, what will she do? Do they realize that taking a friend’s adderral is a dangerous habit, and why? Be sure your child knows that you expect them to call an ambulance if someone else needs help, regardless of the repercussions. And definitely set up an Uber and/or Lyft account and have your teen practice using it. Tell them you will pay the bill for the car service if they ever need it for safety reasons. Your teen should never have to wonder if they can get home safely or find themselves in a car with a driver who has been drinking.
6. Discuss love, sex and consent.
Young women in their first year of college are considered by many experts to be at higher risk of sexual assault. Is it possible to act with integrity and to stay safe in romantic and sexual relationships in the age of hook-up culture, and what would that look like for your son or daughter? If they feel too awkward having sex with that stranger without getting wasted, then maybe it’s a bad idea to proceed with the sex. Every young man and woman needs to understand that inebriated consent is not consent, that the absence of a Yes is effectively a No. Many teen boys have used pornography as their introduction to sex. Does he understand that porn is not a realistic depiction of healthy sex, and why? (Most porn is male centered and it often includes verbal or physical violence toward women.) Does he know how to ask a girl what she likes in bed? Does she feel good about pleasuring herself, and comfortable saying No if she decides during foreplay that sex isn’t a good idea? What’s their plan for birth control and protection from STDs? Does your teen know how to follow her own inner compass and trust her instincts, so she’s less likely to end up in scary situations? Hopefully, this isn’t the first time you’ve had these discussions with your teen, so ask questions, listen and help your teen evaluate what kind of intimate connections they really want and how they might create those.
“When you have sex with a girl, be gentle. Listen to what she wants. Respect her, even if you don’t love her……” – Dad to son who is leaving home, Captain Fantastic
7. Educate about health.
Does your child know what to do if he breaks his leg or gets sick? Does she know what to do if she’s raped? No parent wants to think about these emergencies, but it is better for your child to be prepared. Be sure they know their insurance information, how to fill prescriptions, etc. Finally, ask about sleep. Does your child realize that too little sleep compromises their intellectual ability, causes weight gain, and makes it more likely that she’ll spend time in bed with strep throat when everyone else is having fun?
8. Discuss Covid prevention.
Unfortunately, we are still battling COVID as new, more infectious, variants emerge. Your teen is (presumably) vaccinated since colleges require that, but can still become infected. Most infections in young people, especially those who are vaccinated, are not serious, but even young people sometimes exhibit worrisome, long-lasting symptoms of “long covid.” Be sure your teen understands that following the prevention protocols of their college is important.
9. Make agreements about money.
Who pays for what? Is your child expected to cover his own incidentals? Will he work part time? Does he need to open a bank account or can he just use his debit and/or credit card? Who will pay the credit card bill? Where is the closest ATM to where he’ll be living? How will he budget his money? What will happen if he overspends? Finally, explain that college is a privilege, a gift you are happy to help with, and you want to be sure he understands how much each class costs. Divide the cost of a semester by the number of classes and the number of weeks. He needs to know how much he’ll be wasting every time he skips class.
Take a deep breath, enjoy these discussions, and be sure to stay calm and make them fun for your teen. And every time you talk, don’t forget to give your teen a big hug and say again how very proud you are of her, and how lucky you are to be her parent!