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College Game Plan

Six Questions Parents Need to Ask Before Their Daughter Starts College

Sending a college freshman off is never easy. But for parents who are moving their daughters in for the first time, there's a unique set of fears and challenges.

Young women today are at risk for a myriad of health and social problems, from higher levels of anxiety to increased reports of sexual assault.

But there's good news: They also have access to a variety of specialized safety measures, technology apps, and support services that didn’t necessarily exist for their mothers or even college-age children several years ago.

Special section: Get tips and advice about college at College Game Plan

To equip your family for the upcoming school year, here are six questions every parent should ask before leaving their daughter on campus.

Where can my daughter find women’s health care?

In a best-case scenario, female students and their parents learn which health services are available prior to move-in day, said Dr. Mark Peluso, director of Middlebury College’s Parton Health Center. But it’s never too late to help your daughter find answers.

Image: IOWA DAILY LIFE
To prepare for a daughter’s departure, families should explore her college health center’s website and call the center directly if they can’t find adequate information. Jessica Reilly / Telegraph Herald via AP

Some schools, Peluso said, have robust health centers, while others rely on outside resources, like Planned Parenthood, local women’s health offices, and urgent care clinics. It’s important for young women — especially those leaving home the first time — to know when they have to leave campus to access certain care.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control college health page, nearly half of the 20 million new sexually transmitted diseases each year are among people ages 15 to 24. But women especially can have serious long-term effects, including infertility. According to Peluso, female students should know where they can get:

  • an STD test
  • treatment for a yeast or urinary tract infection
  • contraception (including the birth control pill, IUDs, barrier methods, like condoms to prevent STDs, as well as “the morning-after-pill,” available at some schools without a prescription or appointment)
  • a Confidential Sexual Assault Nurse Exam (also called a forensic or SANE exam, which can be performed up to 120 hours after an incident, and may include swabs of the pelvic area, hair samples and blood or urine collection).

To prepare for a daughter’s departure, Dr. Peluso suggests families explore her college health center’s website and call or email the center if they can’t find information.

And while office visits at many campus health centers are free for students, he reminds parents that testing and treatment typically requires health insurance or out-of-pocket payments. To avoid unexpected costs, ask: What’s my daughter’s health insurance coverage while away from home? Is she considered out-of-network? Does she need to purchase a lower-cost plan offered by her college or university that covers her in school? Those questions also apply to sons, as well.

What about off-hours help?

Emergencies don’t tend to happen at 10 a.m. on a Monday when everything is open for business, said Lisa Endlich Heffernan, an occasional contributor to NBC News' College Game Plan section and co-founder of Grown and Flown, a blog on adolescent and college-aged parenting. Make sure daughters know where they can get help around the clock, she said, so they — and you, the parent — aren’t scrambling miles away at 2 a.m. working through a serious problem together.

Related: Middlebury College Bans Energy Drinks, Linking Use to Alcohol, 'High-Risk' Sex

Particularly, parents of daughters with pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, depression, or an eating disorder, should ask: Where is the closest 24-hour pharmacy? (Or make sure that a child’s prescriptions have been pre-mail-ordered.) What is the number of a 24-hour crisis hotline? Where is the nearest hospital and emergency care? How can my daughter get there?

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Families should also remember, unless your daughter has signed a HIPPA release form, which allows disclosure of her health information to her parents, her medical treatment is confidential as an adult, over 18. Of course, in the case of serious injury, hospitalization, rape, or sexual assault, parents may want to help her make medical decisions or speak directly to her health care provider.

To avoid stressful communication hurdles, Grown and Flown co-founder Mary Dell Harrington advises parents have their daughter sign a HIPPA form before leaving, so you can hand or fax one to a medical professional, if needed. Blank HIPPA forms are commonly available at a local doctor’s office or can be downloaded from some college websites.

How often do you want to communicate?

This one’s for your daughter directly.

Ask how often she wants to text, email, Skype, or phone, says University of Alabama at Birmingham clinical psychologist Josh Klapow. While an open line of dialogue is key — especially as she navigates a new lifestyle— make sure your parental anxieties don’t fester hers. And all forms of interaction, even Facebook and Instagram, do count as talking. “You can say something casual as you pack,” Klapow said. “Like, how about we touch base once or twice a week? I can call or Facetime every Sunday if you’d like?”

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He also advises parents do some “psychological sleuthing.” “You aren’t grilling her when she’s at school,” Klapow said. “But you do want to be aware of what’s going on in her daily life, from normal bouts of homesickness to a new relationship to worrying about an exam to not sleeping or eating enough.”

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The Center for Collegiate Mental Health’s most recent data shows 62 percent of college and university students seeking counseling services are women. While early warning signs of anxiety and depression differ among female students, Klapow reminds parents, shifts in sleep patterns or appetite, or feeling overwhelmed with deadlines can signal a daughter may need extra help adjusting to college.

Which safety device should she have?

“It’s impossible to think your daughter will never walk alone on campus,” Harrington said. “But technology can make her less isolated.”

Harrington suggests a personal device, such as a Robocopp — a wearable “sound grenade”— that lets young women release an alarm to jolt assailants and signal for help. There are also options that connect to an app on your daughter’s phone and within seconds, send her GPS location to a list of contacts. One example, Revolar, can attach to keys or be tucked (somewhat) discretely inside a bra or backpack, Harrington said.

Related: Not Just Pepper Spray: Apps and Devices to Keep College Students Safe

Meanwhile, some colleges, like the University of Florida, have found traditional “Blue Light” emergency phones lacking and have rolled out customized apps, giving students one-tap access to emergency help on campus, like Florida’s “Gatorsafe.”

What’s the school’s sexual assault procedure?

In the wake of the recent Stanford rape case, many parents, understandably, feel heightened concern. At college, roughly 85 percent of rape survivors know their assailant, said forensic consultant and psychologist, and campus sexual assault expert David Lisak — even if simply meeting at a party before the attack. “I would want to see the college’s sexual assault response system clearly described, in detail and easily located on the college’s website,” he said.

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Is there a dedicated, full-time staff for sexual assault prevention and response? Is there a sexual assault education program? The more parents research now, the better they can emotionally and physically aid a daughter in crisis.

What’s your plan for partying?

Again, this one’s better to ask your daughter before dorm room goodbyes — though never too late to cover.

Realistically, partying is central to college culture. But studies show pretty much anybody who drinks alcohol— especially significant quantities— becomes more vulnerable to rape or sexual assault, Lisak said. And the more you drink, the harder it is to make reasonable decisions.

Dr. Peluso suggests a strategy he’s learned from some of his female patients: they have an articulated party plan. “They stay together, watch out for each other, and all come home together,” he said. “No hook-ups, no matter how cute the other person is.” They also prevent each other from over-drinking or “embarrassing themselves.” These young women still have fun, he assures students, but take care of each other and seem safer than most.