In one month, 25% of my patients will leave for college or university in another city. This is both an exciting time and a nerve-wracking time. Teens themselves, as well as their parents, are wondering whether they will be able to manage their lives as well as their studies. I thought it might help everyone if I outlined the skills that an adolescent must have to manage this new adventure.
I have found that the skills to manage living on your own fall into two general groups: the skills needed to remain calm and the skills needed to resolve conflict. There is still time before the summer is over for you and your teen to discuss these to be as ready as possible for those first weeks away from home.
In my experience, the main reason teens and young adults struggle to stay calm can be self-esteem. It’s normal to have doubts about our skills and abilities, especially when we’re facing a new challenge, like going away to school. It’s also normal to worry that our knowledge and skills may not be good enough for us to succeed in an academic setting that is very different from high school. The amount of structure in class and the independence expected in college and university can be very disconcerting. I am certain that, as you read this, many parents are remembering their own first year in college or university. I can remember arriving at the Leacock 100 auditorium at McGill University for my Nineteenth Century English Literature class and being overwhelmed by the eight hundred other freshmen in the huge room.
What are some of the most reassuring things you can say to someone? Remind them of their previous successes and that they’ve proven that they deserve to be in their program. Remind them that everyone else feels the same way as they do. Remind them to use every resource at their disposal – to get to know their academic advisor and their professors.
There are resources at university and college that high schools do not have. There are remarkable libraries with helpful, friendly librarians. There are beautiful gyms to visit for exercise, which promotes calmness. There are social clubs and sports clubs and outing clubs. There is a whole new city to explore.
All these supports can help a student manage their nervousness about this new situation, but if someone cannot remember this for themselves, remind them that they have done challenging new things before. Leaving home to go to school is hard, but they have experience with other new situations and they will manage this one just as well as they have others.
Once a person is calm, it is easier for them to manage the conflicts that do arise. I remember sitting halfway through a math class before I realized that I was in the third year class and not the first year class. I had miscopied the course number, but it felt to me as though I had landed in a world where the natives all spoke a language completely unfamiliar to me. The clerk responsible for helping me work out the problem was especially uncompromising and I could not figure out how to resolve this issue. It turns out that fainting from the anxiety caused by the situation can be effective in convincing administrative personnel that they are on the wrong track, but it’s not really a sustainable strategy for problem-solving.
With the youth I support, we work on speaking plainly, possibly from a script if the youth is especially nervous. I also remind people that they can always bring someone with them for support. Many of the youth I see have special needs. While most colleges and universities are extremely helpful with accommodations, sometimes a young person can have difficulty explaining what is happening. I have advised youth in some circumstances that they might consider speaking with their advisor with their parent present on Facetime.
Facetime with parents is not, however, a good device to use when solving problems with roommates. Those are situations in which the staff in a residence can be helpful. If your child doesn’t live in residence and a conversation isn’t working, a short note to a roommate can often get the point across.
Anyone reading this will realize that my advice is only good for the normal problems arising in a new situation. There is no doubt that, sometimes, a student will find themselves housed with the roommate from hell or in a class with the one professor still living in the 19th century. These are extraordinary situations and call for extraordinary measures. If you get a call from someone in such a situation, remind them that this situation is not normal and help them to find proper assistance. I remember getting a call from my daughter because she was sleeping in her car in Vancouver. The woman from whom she was renting a room was clearly paranoid and becoming too frightening to stay with. That situation required special measures, although I think my daughter was calmer than I was.
It’s good for parents to have some strategies for staying calm as well when their child leaves home. I learned that the hard way.
(This is the car my daughter drove across the country, and unfortunately, occasionally slept in. This photo was taken by Caitlin Reilley Beck.)