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Advice for surviving your teen’s transition from High School to College

by Judy Callans, LCSW

For many teens ending a four-year high school career and entering college is an exciting time.  They tend to view this as an ending of their youth and the beginning of their adult lives.  It is a long awaited freedom from the rules and restrictions set by parents and teachers.   Many young adults welcome and thrive with this new sense of control over their own lives.  However, it is worthwhile for both the parent and the student to keep in mind that this autonomy brings responsibility, and responsibility often leads to stress.

When living away from their childhood homes, college students are required to make more decisions than they had experienced under their parents guidance.  If for example, they choose to skip a college class to “sleep in”, they answer only to themselves.  They now truly experience natural consequences.  If the consequence is merely getting the missed assignment from another student, the price they pay for their choice is minimal and harmless.  If the consequence is a failing grade or an empty bank account, the choice may have greater impact.  With each independent decision the teen learns what is and is not acceptable.  They naturally gain decision-making skills and grow in maturity from these experiences.  The price to be paid for these experiences, beyond rising tuition costs, is mental/emotional strain from the pressures associated with making the right choices.  This can be particularly stressful for students who lived relatively “sheltered lives” with few responsibilities.  

The stress can manifest itself in many different ways in anticipation or in response to these new responsibilities.  During the months long transition from high school to college, children that previously had been happy, easygoing people can become argumentative and challenging to live with.  On the surface this is difficult for parents to understand.  In my practice of over 20 years I have observed a pattern of parents questioning the new behavior with confusion and frustration.  “Why is my child acting so terrible?  Why would he want to leave home on such a bad note?”  What parents come to learn is that the arguing is a response to this stress and an unconscious attempt to create a separation from their childhood on their own terms.

A proactive conversation can be helpful for both the teen and parent.  Acknowledging that the upcoming separation will be difficult will provide some insight and can lessen the damage that an upcoming battles might create.  Allowing for increased independence and distance prior to leaving, offers the teen the space he/she needs. Support and love should be verbally acknowledged, even if the teen has difficulty receiving it.  We, as parents, must remember that although it may look like your children aren’t listening, they can still hear you.

It can also be helpful to schedule phone dates with your kids once they get to college so they can look forward to and prepare for your next contact.   Without at least a rough schedule, students can feel either isolated not knowing when they will hear from you next or intruded upon when the call “demands” their attention at an inconvenient time.  Planned home and school visit can also ease the stress. 

Honesty and empathy can too be helpful.  Even for most adults, transitions and physical moves are difficult.   Your child may find comfort in knowing that you too struggled when making a big move, yet were able to eventually adjust to the new situation.

In conclusion, it is important to keep in mind that with all growth comes some pain.   Both parent and child are involved in this conflictual right of passage from adolescence to adulthood.  The goal is to be able to launch the teen into an adult life with minimal negative impact and worry for all of you. 

Judy Callans is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in Northfield, Illinois. She is a founding member of Judy can be reached for consultation in her office or online. See for more information.

13 Responses to “Advice for surviving your teen’s transition from High School to College”

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