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6 months to send-off: How to emotionally prepare your child (and yourself) for college

A month-by-month plan to help ease college-bound teens (and their parents) into the next phase of life.
by Erica Lamberg /
Image: Teenagers Young Team Together Cheerful Concept
60% of college students say they weren't emotionally prepared for college life.Rawpixel / Getty Images/iStockphoto
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It seems like time went so fast — you blinked and now your baby is 18, ready to leave the safety of the nest to pursue their college dreams. By now you've tapped more experienced parents to get tips about everything from college applications to dorm room necessities, but what about the emotional, and even financial, side of leaving home?

According to a research from New York University, this changing phase of life should be a time when parents talk with their children about the realities of college life as college freshman will be confronted with abundant pressures, including new social situations. “With respect to academics, students today are feeling increasing pressure to know what they want to do, pick a career path and plan for their futures,” the research cites. This month-by-month guide can help.

March

Help enhance problem-solving skills

A lack of problem-solving skills has been linked to mental health problems, such as depression and suicidality, says Amy Morin, a licensed clinical social worker, a psychotherapist and psychology professor at Northeastern University, and author of “13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don't Do.” “It's important to ensure your teen knows how to solve her own problems before she heads off on her own,” she says. “College students who don't know what to do when they encounter problems, like they're struggling with a tough class or not getting along with their roommate, will either avoid the problem altogether or make a snap decision that could be harmful.”

March is a key time to review problem-solving strategies. Rather than focusing on solutions, she advises, talk about the process for solving problems. “State the problem, brainstorm at least five potential solutions, review the pros and cons of each, pick a solution, and see if it works,” Morin continues. “Reviewing that with your teen — and practicing it — could make a huge difference in your teen's college life.”

April

Talk about strategies to manage uncomfortable emotions

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health cites most college students say they were academically prepared for life beyond high school. But, the research says, 60% of them say they weren't emotionally prepared for college life. College students don't know how to deal with anger, frustration, loneliness, fear, or disappointment, says Moris. “Help your teen identify concrete coping skills he can use in college,” advises Morin. “Calling a friend, working out, writing in a journal or engaging in a hobby might be strategies that help him regulate his emotions in a healthy way. Teens who lack healthy coping skills may turn to food — or drugs and alcohol — to deal with their discomfort.”

May

Encourage taking positive action

Make sure your teen recognizes that she has the power to make a difference. “Although this can be a busy time for a graduating senior, show your teen that she's never too busy to make an impact,” says Morin. Whether it’s volunteer at a soup kitchen or assisting an elderly neighbor who needs a little help with yard work, share how positive action impacts his community. “Pitch in as a family, but make it clear to your teen that when he's in college, he'll need to recognize the steps he can take to make the world a bit better and then take those steps on his own,” adds Morin.

June

Inspire awe

As high school wraps up, many teens grow fixated on their futures. And for many of them, the world seems like a small place. A study from the University of California, Berkeley, found awe teaches young people that their problems are fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of life. So whether your teen is convinced she picked the wrong college or she's stressed out about what type of roommate she's going to live with, inspiring awe will help her put things in perspective, says Morin. So get out for a hike, take a vacation to a new place or encourage them to read about people who have overcome hurdles and went on do great things.

College is full of peer pressure and without you there to do it for them, they will have to stand up for themselves. Teach them that they do not have to feel obligated or pressured to fit in with the crowd.

July

Boost their confidence to stand their ground

Pam Andrews, a college admissions coach and scholarship strategist in Delaware, says one of the most important things for them for college-bound students to learn is how to say “no.”

“College is full of peer pressure and without you there to do it for them, they will have to stand up for themselves,” she says. “Teach them that they do not have to feel obligated or pressured to fit in with the crowd.”

According to research from Temple University in Philadelphia, teenagers don’t always grasp the gravity of consequences. “They think they are invincible, and they want to impress their friends,” the research cites. Temple researchers also found teens take significantly more risks, and are more responsive to potential rewards, when other teenagers are around than when they are by themselves.

July

Encourage goal-setting

Discuss concrete goals for the academic year. “And remember, goals don't have to revolve around grades. Establish goals for staying healthy, making friends and managing stress too,” says Morin.

She suggests that your teen write down his goals, and encourage your teen to evaluate his progress throughout the school year. “Talk about what he can do when he feels he isn't meeting his goals and how he can boost his chances of success,” she adds.

August

It’s time to let go

College is a time for differentiation, individuation and personal development, says Jill Shipley, managing director of family dynamics and education at Abbot Downing in Palm Beach, FL. Both parents and children in today’s world can consider each other best friends and losing that constant connectivity can be tough for both sides. “That being said, it is not healthy to talk multiple times a day, text nonstop or come home every weekend to be with parents,” she says. “College is an opportunity for self-exploration and development. As tough as this can be try hard to provide your child the wings they need to develop. Trust they already have strong roots.”

Establish goals for staying healthy, making friends and managing stress too.

Other issues for parents to consider

Stay on a financial timeline

In early spring, Lyle Wolberg, CFP, a wealth adviser and founding partners of Telemus in Southfield, Michigan, says it’s to get your financial plan in order. College decisions are due by May 1 but by now your child knows where they have been accepted, denied or deferred. “Most scholarship money has also been granted for each school. This is the month where you really need to sit down with pen and paper and map out each of their choices.” If they are going to have to take out a loan or work during school then tell them now, advises Wolberg. “Most colleges have a good idea of all tuition, living, book and entertainment costs for students attending,” he says. “Take advantage of friends and relatives that have kids at the schools your child is thinking of attending to get a ‘real life’ example of all the costs you can expect.”

Understand higher-ed options

As a parent, you must have conversations about how college life will differ from the life your teenager knows. “It is important for parents to assess the maturity of their child to determine what type of college environment would be the best fit for them,” says Larry Tyson, Ph.D., associate professor of Counselor Education in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Education. He says it is important that families explore all options, not just the big universities, but small colleges and community colleges.

Getting ahead of finances

Field admissions offers

Collect these letters and compare them objectively in order to make a decision on the best school for your student. “Be sure to factor in all costs associated with each school under consideration,” says Stephanie Yates, Ph.D., director of the University of Alabama Birmingham’s Regions Institute for Financial Education.

Calculate the cost

Once you have made a decision on a college or university, you can gather cost of attendance information in order to create a college budget. Determine how much you have available from college savings, scholarships and expected financial aid, says Yates.

Set up their banking needs

This is also a good time to make sure that your student has access to a checking and a savings account. “You may also want to consider banking with an institution where you can easily deposit funds if your student will be attending college in another city or state,” adds Yates. “In fact, some schools may require that financial aid, work-study or any other payments to students be made through direct deposit. In addition, do you want to provide your student with a credit card for emergencies? Adding a child as an authorized user to a credit card account is one way to help them build credit early. However, any misuse of credit will affect both card owners.”

Fill out financial paperwork

Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Filing. The final deadline to submit paperwork is June 30, 2018. State deadlines vary by state, so check with your state of residence for important dates in your area.

Attend summer orientation

Parent and student orientations are usually held in June and July. Yates says students and parents will learn about student organizations, important deadlines, class scheduling and get a chance to ask last minute questions.

3 ways parents can embrace the transition

In an article in Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, this departure is a significant milestone in the life of a family and ushers in a time of separation and transition, requiring an adjustment on the part of parents, the college-bound teenager and the whole family. According to the study’s research team, here are some things parents should do:

1. Accept there will be a void

There will be empty time and cleaned-out rooms. “Parents may feel unprepared or uncomfortable without their roles as primary caretaker and protector. Parenting is a tough business and a double-edged sword; successful parenting requires devoting one's life to a totally dependent being to ensure a safe, independent departure into the world — leaving parents behind. Joy may be mixed with longing as the young adult takes flight from home base,” the article says.

2. Understand that you'll feel left out

There will be an adjustment to being on the outside which may be difficult when parents are no longer needed in the same ways. “Even though students may have been somewhat independent while still under their care, supervision and roof, once in college parents are less privy to every aspect of their child's life; they no longer know the details of their son's or daughter's whereabouts and are not able to pass judgment on all their friends,” says the research team.

3. Relinquish control

Giving up parental control is necessary. “Whether it's giving advice about selecting courses or drinking, parents have to come to realize that young adults must make their own decisions,” cites the research. “Relationships grow and change as children grow and change.”

NEXT: What mental health professionals say to their kids about school shootings

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