College is coming. You’ve known that it’s coming. You’ve visited colleges, you’ve created a list of potential schools, you’ve filled out applications, and you’ve completed personal statements. Now, the wait is on. Once you and your college-bound child begin to hear about acceptances and rejections, decisions will be made, and a wave of relief will come over all of you. Phew!
Both you and your child will be able to enjoy all the celebrations and field trips that come with being a high school senior with an acceptance letter in hand, and a hoodie that proudly marks the college mascot with which you will both begin to identify. It’s an exciting time that culminates in a graduation ceremony where you will think about how quickly time has passed from your child’s birth to now, how proud you are of your child’s accomplishments, and how hard you will all celebrate. It’s an exhilarating time for all of you. Enjoy every morsel and every moment of it. You will have all earned it by June.
Once your child has graduated, however, the reality will set in that the next thing to prepare for is actually going to college. Going to college involves moving into a dorm in August and ultimately saying goodbye to your child whom you have supervised and supported for the last 18 years. Needless to say, this is a big transition for both you, the parents, and your child, who is now, technically, an adult. (When did that happen?)
What Can I Do to Prepare my Child for College?
Your child is about to enter a world of true independence. Nobody will be standing in their dorm room reminding them of their 9:00 am class, or to clean up their room, or when and how much to study for their upcoming exam. Parents should begin to make some subtle changes while their high school senior is living at home so that the shock of the new world of living away from home is not so overwhelming.
Avoid food fights. A healthy child instinctively knows how much to eat. If he refuses to finish whatever food is on his plate, just let it go. He won't starve.
Turn a Few Everyday Tasks Over
So that your child does not fall into utter shock about how to handle daily tasks and small challenges, begin to hand the phone to your child. That is, ask him to email a teacher, Guidance Counselor, or make the call to schedule an oil change or dentist appointment. Although it is all too easy to keep washing her clothes, turn that duty over to her so that she can begin to plan ahead when to do laundry, and how long a load takes to wash or dry.
Let her change her sheets, even if you have housekeepers come every two weeks. There is no cleaning crew in the dorms. Instead of giving your child verbal, email or text reminders about the next game, test, or family event, help her to find a way to keep track of all of the upcoming events, academic, social or athletic using a paper and pencil daily planner or electronic calendar.
In essence, begin to extend your child’s responsibilities, planning, and managing time so it is not a completely unfamiliar process once he is in college.
Ask Questions Instead of Offering Solutions
Rather than telling your child how to fix a problem, ask a question, such as “Well, what are some things you can do to get through this?” rather than, “So call Mrs. X and ask her to X and then go to X and bring X.” Encourage your child’s resourcefulness rather than problem-solving for her. Allow her to engage in trial and error and to figure out who to ask questions as well as what worked and didn’t work.
Pass along your plan. Mobilize the other caregivers in your child's life - your spouse, grandparents, daycare worker, babysitter - to help reinforce the values and the behavior you want to instill. This includes everything from saying thank you and being kind to not whining.
Jody Michael prepared an article “Helping Your Child Transition to College” (2016) where she suggests that parents “Park the Helicopter.” This made me chuckle a bit, but it’s true. Despite the fact that many of us were raised by parents who let us figure it out, our generation of parents have become hoverers who fix things for our children rather than letting them find their own solutions. When we fix for our children rather than with our children, we are giving them the message that they “can’t," which in turn, leads to the belief that they aren't strong enough or smart enough. This is the opposite message that we want to give our children, whether they are 8 or 18.
Process the Successes and the Failures
Give your child time and space to discuss struggles and problems while figuring out how to solve them. Just listen. Validate and use these opportunities to help your child learn that they are resilient.
I work with a number of parents who want life to be "great" for their child. They don’t want them to know what failure or rejection feels like. But failure is a part of life. None of us would be able to appreciate our successes without having also experienced failures. Help your child to build that “I can” factor: "I will try and sometimes I will fail. Sometimes I will get it. But if I don’t achieve the goal I set out for, I will try again. I will revise my plan and attempt at it once, twice or ten times more." Resilience is falling down, feeling defeated and deflated, but then getting back up and working at it again.
"Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them." - Oscar Wilde
Create this interaction now with your child, while they still live at home with you. Ask questions like, “Did that work? Will you try again? What will you do differently next time?” Emphasize the effort, the focus, the motivation, and the outcome, good or unfavorable.
The Transition is Real and Significant
For many families, college is the first time since preschool that parent and child have been separated for more than a few days. This is big and scary. Not only is there physical space in between you and your child, there is also emotional space.
College Dreams Dashed
This is a significant milestone in your family’s life, whether this is your first child or your fourth. The process of graduating from high school and transitioning to college also marks the symbolic end of childhood and an entry into adulthood. Some children may be ready and others will need a bit more hand holding.
In my work, I’ve found that students fall into 3 categories of preparation and acclimation to college:
- Some will transition relatively smoothly and be okay almost immediately.
- Others will transition slowly but will ultimately be okay after a few months.
- The final group will require a semester or two to adjust and will need significantly more support during that time.
Be a Good Role Model
Wherever your child falls, it’s okay. In working with young adults transitioning into college, they seem to hold the belief that college is "great" and "fun" and that they will be "fine." But what happens when the adjustment process takes more than just a few weeks? They begin to panic. They begin to think that they have done something wrong and that their experience is not normal. They look around them and the other students seem to be just "fine." In truth, not everyone is, but many students are not forthcoming in sharing their struggle.
In many of high schools, students may witness college freshman return during their winter break to speak to the senior class about college. Many of them will share the positive experiences they’ve had, but fewer are honest about their struggles. Who would want to disclose that it took an entire semester to find their groove? Or figure out how to manage their time? Or make friends? Or like their professors and classes? Not many, sadly.
As much as college is the next developmental milestone for your child, there are several things you can begin doing now to prepare your child to be college ready in the fall.
Don't clip your child's wings. Your toddler's mission in life is to gain independence. So when she's developmentally capable of putting her toys away, clearing her plate from the table, and dressing herself, let her. Giving a child responsibility is good for her self-esteem (and your sanity!).