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Talking About Their Generation: Part One in a Series on Helping Freshman Cope with the Transition to College

Daniel Jay Sonkin, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in an independent practice in Sausalito, California. Since 1981, his work has focused ...Read More

A recent study by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has found that the self-described emotional health of first-time college freshman is at the lowest point since they started conducting the survey 25 years ago. Fifty-two percent (versus 64% in 1985) of all college students rated their emotional health as above average or greater. The gap between boys and girls has also gotten larger, where approximately 50% percent of girls (down from 60%) and 64% of boys (down from about 70%) seem to say that their mental health is above average or greater. About 29% of high school seniors are staying they are feeling overwhelmed, that’s up from 18%, twenty-five years ago. Again, the gender gap is very dramatic in this category. Thirty-nine percent (39%) of senior girls are feeling overwhelmed emotionally (up from 23% in 1985), and 18% of boys (up from 13%) are feeling overwhelmed in the last year of high school.

It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to understand that young adults today are experiencing a great deal of stress – they are worried about getting into college, doing well in classes and succeeding afterwards. These concerns are taking a toll on young people’s mental health. And when kids worry, so do their parents. So the question becomes, What can parents do to help facilitate a smooth transition to college?

The Early Transition

The transition to college begins long before the student even contemplates what school to attend. Although parents and children may have discussions about attending college very early on, the actual logistical process of going on college tours is, for most students, the beginning of moving from talk to action. This process may go smoothly for most kids, but some students may begin to give telltale signs of anxiety about the transition process. These signs may include, not wanting to talk with parents about their ideas about college or avoiding or putting off touring altogether. Some students may exhibit anxiety whenever the discussion of college comes up. Others may go on tours with their parents, but may become moody, irritable or withdrawn during the process.

Student’s signs of anxiety can become great opportunities for attentive parents to convey to their children that they can be sources of support during the stressful transition. Parents who tend to be oblivious to their child’s worry and apprehension may miss these opportunities for a supportive connection. If the parent is anxious, no matter what they say or do, they are likely to contagiously cause the student to feel even more anxiety about the process. Parents need to learn how manage their own anxiety so they approach their child with calm.

Successfully parenting an adolescent involves the parents finding a healthy balance between giving the student the space to figure things out, listening and encouraging the teen to problem-solve, while not getting in there and taking over and giving unsolicited advice. In other words, parents need to find that delicate balance between making themselves available, and not being too intrusive.

During younger adolescence (say 12-14), it is important that parents err on the intrusive side of the balance, so as to make clear to their children that they are available and interested in helping them cope and problem solve. Some parents may think its better to avoid difficult conversations and negative feelings, but an early strategy of avoidance can backfire. Avoiding difficult conversations gives the student the message “we can’t go there.” As a result, if problems develop later on the parent may then wonder why their student didn’t come to them for help.

Over time, this balance needs to come more and more weighted toward giving space and listening, and resisting giving advice and offering solutions. Helping adolescents to make healthy decisions is one of the most important goals of the successful transition to adulthood. Parents who constantly take over and tell the child what to do or think are actually going to make their child either more dependent or more rebellious – neither of which helps for a smooth transition to adulthood. Dependent kids have a harder time transitioning to college because they question their ability to make it on their own. Rebellious kids reject their parent’s input at a time when there still needs to be some guidance from adults. How to keep that connection and yet encourage separation and self-sufficiency is the art of successfully launching a young adult.

Keep Reading By Author Daniel Sonkin, Ph.D.
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