Probably the most important thing to keep in mind when preparing your child to go to college for the first time is to talk with them (dialogue) as opposed to talking at them (lecturing). Young people, like most adults, tend to respond more favorably when they are treated with positivity and respect and are fully contributing members to their own circumstances.
If they are seen as an adult, then they will also begin to act as one. When they are at college, they are going to need to make adult decisions for themselves, so starting the process before they go will help them to make those decisions wisely.
As they do at home, issues and problems will certainly arise. And, while most college students still have contact with their parents and will not need to make decisions entirely in a vacuum, if they can learn effective problem solving skills, then all the better for both their self-esteem and self-confidence.
If you haven’t done so already, giving your child increased privileges and responsibilities, and the opportunity to make decisions, will allow them to practice and learn good decision-making. Allowing them to decide, for example, a time to return home at night could be one possible area. Look for opportunities to increase and develop their decision-making skills.
Most importantly, when healthy or positive decisions are made, make sure to validate them. When poor decisions are made, explore how they came to that conclusion. It’s important to look into the thought process together and see the reasoning behind the decision. Really explore and examine so that the young person can see what process they went through. Did they not take certain things into account?
The Time Is Now
If you have not talked with them previously, then the time to start is now. Topics that may need to be explored include:
- Alcohol and / or drugs.
- Treatment of others.
- Study patterns.
- Mental health and wellness.
- Money (especially the concept of debt and credit).
As parents, we may have a misconception that if we bring up certain topics, then we are planting a seed in our child’s mind, however this isn’t the case. Teenagers are already thinking about and talking about these topics.
The more a parent is open with their child, the more a child can feel comfortable sharing with a parent, too. However, as with any adult that we would meet, direct questions about any of these topics might yield a negative response. Instead, leading with a story about your own college life or a story about someone that you know may help introduce the topic.
How To Have Conversations With Your Teens
- Leave out the formal sit-downs. A planned and scheduled time to “sit down to talk to mom and dad” can only instill dread and fear in anyone. Instead, have a conversation while doing something that you all enjoy doing together (something that doesn’t involve a screen or loud music), and let the conversation flow naturally.
- Lead with an open and peaceful heart. Picture your child as someone you have just met, and accord them the same dignity and respect in the conversation. As we all know, lectures never have the effect that we would like for them to have. (Have you ever changed your behavior simply because someone told you to stop doing it, even if it was dangerous, ill-advised, or detrimental to your health? Has your teen ever changed their behavior willingly just because we pointed out that it was dangerous or detrimental to their future self?)
- Let go of your own anxiety. As Debbie Pincus, childhood expert and LMHC says, “The difficult truth is, you don’t have control over your child’s choices—or the outcome of his or her life. You have a chance to guide him to a better place—that’s what you’re responsible for.“
- Focus on the positive that is already occurring. Your teen or young adult is already making some decisions well; focus on exploring the good in those decisions. For instance, though it might have been hard to refuse that drink or to go out of their way and chose not to befriend someone who might be a negative influence, how did it make them feel afterwards?
- Offer support while your child is away, no matter what the situation is. Let them know that they can always talk to someone about a concern, even if that person is not you.
- Getting help: if your teen or young adult has areas of concern already, whether that be a clear indication of excessive drinking, drug use, or mental health issues of any kind, then seeing a therapist is advisable.
Problems will not clear up simply because a teen goes away to college and leaves old friends behind; in fact, they will likely worsen once away from mom and dad.
Speaking with a psychotherapist can start to reframe any negative thought patterns and help to give a family a way to find unity once again.