Supporting Your Child’s Transition to College

By Tracey Dowdy

The transition from high school senior to college freshman is more complicated than string theory and can be more emotionally overwrought than a Nicholas Sparks novel. The joyful anticipation of being free to make one’s own decisions can quickly devolve into the overwhelming and stressful realization that freedom means responsibility and an expectation of independence. It can also leave students feeling lonely and isolated.

Emery Bergmann, a Cornell University freshman, has garnered national attention for a video she created on just how lonely and strange that transition from high school to college can be. “So I’m a brand spanking new freshman in college and like I guess I just assumed that once I was at school that like it was going to be like, I’ve got a million friends, I was going to party all the time, and it was going to be lit, but it’s just not really like that,” she says. “I really haven’t found anyone I’m close with, and I spend a lot of time in my dorm room, and all the people I talk to are like, ‘I swear to God you’re going to find your people,’ but like, where are they?”

Ironically, Bergman isn’t alone in her feelings. According to a 2017 survey of nearly 48,000 college students by the American College Health Association, 64% of college students said they had felt “very lonely” in the previous 12 months, while only 19% reported they never felt lonely.

Bergman notes in her video that social media made her feelings of loneliness even worse. Even though she “knows it is fake,” those posts can often make it seem as if everyone else is living their best lives while you spend Friday night alone in your dorm room making ramen.

It’s no secret that social media has simultaneously brought us together while pushing us farther apart. Social psychologist Sherry Turkle describes it as being “alone, together.” Though students may be connected to hundreds or even of thousands of followers and friends online, in reality, they experience far fewer in-depth, meaningful, reliable, and long term emotional relationships.

The good news is more and more students are open about their feelings of loneliness and isolation, and there’s less stigma surrounding more serious mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

As a parent, it’s essential to stay engaged while keeping a healthy distance. In other words, check-in, but leave your helicopter on the pad. Every time you intervene and try to solve a challenge facing your student, you undermine their confidence and imply they’re incapable of taking care of themselves. That has long term consequences – a study by two Cal State University-Fresno professors found that over-parenting college students resulted in “lower maladaptive job search and work behavior.” Instead, encourage them to be resourceful and use the services offered by their school. Most offer tutoring, academic, health, and social services, usually at little or no cost.

As you navigate this new relationship and learn what your role is as the parent of an adult, keep the Goldilocks Rule in mind when you’re tempted to check-in. Are you checking in too much? Not enough? Are you too intrusive? Too distant? Ask your child for their input and respect their boundaries.

Keep in mind that just like Goldilock’s porridge, the frequency of contact from your student will run hot and cold, but you’ll eventually find what’s “just right” for both of you. Rest assured you’ll likely still be a constant source of support for your child. They’re exploring new experiences and relationships. If you’ve had a healthy relationship all along, there’s no reason for that to change. A survey by the Jed Foundation found that parents are the primary source of support for 63% of college students experiencing emotional distress. As long as you keep the lines of communication as open as you would if they were still living at home, that relationship will continue to grow and mature in healthy ways, just like your child.

If you’re concerned your student is struggling with anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts, talk to a suicide hotline or substance abuse center for professional advice. Phone calls are free, anonymous, and may save your child’s life.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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