The College Transition: How to Help Your Student
Do you someone beginning to feel anxious about their college transition? To be sure, this time of transitioning from being in familiar surroundings with teachers, school life, drama they know and moving on the college phase of their lives brings excitement!
But it also brings a fair share of anxiety, stress, and discomfort. Your student knows their high school routine. Chances are they’ve been changing periods at the sound of a bell for over a decade. They know what to expect from their current education, home, social, and community environment. They know where their daily meals are coming from.
And all of that is about to change. Whether your child lives on campus with a new roommate, at home with you, or off campus with friends they know, their relationships, roles and situations will all be shifting.
Can you say STRESS??!!
College Transition and Stress
I recently gave a talk to high school students on the transition to college. In my research, I discovered the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, which many of you probably know about. This scale essentially assigns points to a variety of stressors, which are really transitions. Job changes, employment disruption, loss of loved ones, relocations…you get the picture. Then based on your cumulative total, you can see to what extent your transition stress might be having on your health. For new college students facing a new social scene, new dining options, new living quarters, different academic calendar, course load, and structure, plus being away from home and family functions, their total came to 192.
This total places many incoming college students in the “You have a moderate to high chance of becoming ill in the future” category. Is it any wonder campus health centers experience such high volumes in the fall and early winter?
Still, this connection to the health of students was a bit of an eye-opener for me. Transitions are stressful, and they impact our physical well-being as clearly shown by the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale.
How can you help your student cope with the college transition?
First, recall the three natural, fluid stages of a life transition. The first phase always begins at Letting Go, even though as parents we may think it’s our job to encourage them to think ahead. This is an important reminder here. None of us can really move forward without first reflecting on what is changing for us in our roles, relationships, life views and situations in this transition.
Any significant change requires a psychological letting go of what was, the old life view, the past way of being. But…only your [son or daughter] can decide what to let go and when.
Even though our children may only be 17-19 when they leave us, we as parents need to honor that this first phase (and all the others) happens on their timeline, not ours, and not the school’s, or their best friend’s, or well-meaning relatives.
Other Suggestions for Letting Go during the College Transition
A few ways you might consider engaging your son or daughter in a conversation about letting go include maybe sharing a time when you had to let go of something before moving forward. What changed for you when you off left home? How did the move affect your friendships, your role within your family, your relationship with your siblings? Tell stories about this change instead of lecturing. You can also share stories of what you took with you, like your humor, your work habits, or fear of making friends, right down to taking your favorite baby blanket. Honest conversations about this can begin to prepare your child for what’s next while also deepening the bond between you.
Here are a few other ideas:
- What are rituals you might begin to help acknowledge the letting go? Yes, there is graduation and maybe a party. But perhaps it’s simply helping them clean out their closet and together driving the bags to Goodwill. Or maybe it’s creating a fun ceremony of passing along a treasured item from your graduating senior to another sibling or cousin.
- Your senior may be saying good-bye to a job, friends, a youth group, or relatives. How can you help honor these times in your student’s life? (Obviously safety and keeping things legal is important here!)
- Acknowledge that they don’t have to let go of everything now. Reassure them that letting go is a process. They may return home at Thanksgiving and realize there are additional friendships that no longer support them, or that how they studied in high school may not be working in college. How can you encourage them while leaving ultimate decisions up to them as to their next steps?
Talk about their supports and how these can help with a Transition
Whenever I talk to women who are going through life transitions, I always begin by asking them about their support system. (I also call this my Transition Survival Guide). Our children should have a transition survival support system as well. Here are some great questions to begin asking them, observing or affirming in them the following:
- What helps support your student in healthy ways? Is it music, nature, being with people, volunteering, quiet time and lots of space? How can you encourage them to remember to take advantage of what they already know about what supports them?
- Who supports them? Maybe it’s you, or maybe it’s an uncle, or family friend, or counselor, or spiritual leader. Who can they count on to reach out to for a non-judgmental listening ear? That’s what we as adults would want. So would your student. Think of ways you might have a conversation where they acknowledge these key support people.
- Ask them what their values are. And if they don’t know, send them this link for a quick survey. Knowing our values can help us rely on character strengths important to us., like honesty, courage, appreciation of beauty, etc. Values can help us make informed decisions about next steps or what we’re missing or feeling homesick for. They help us remember who we really are when we’re in strange places with different surroundings.
- Encourage them to be creative. Whether it’s writing occasionally in a journal, or coloring with crayons and coloring books, creating helps us de-stress. And this is a good thing in college.
- Encourage them to create daily plans. School calendars usually come with a planner of some sort. High school kids use these; college kids need them, too. They may have multiple classes to juggle with homework, athletics, labs, and a work schedule. Daily schedules help them focus on the tasks at hand and keep them moving forward towards their goals.
The Second and Third Phases in a College Transition
Once your son or daughter has arrived on campus, or moved into their dorm/apartment, classes begin. Suddenly they’re eating different foods, beginning to navigate new social networks, trying to locate a health center, and deciding when to start writing that first paper. Gradually, they move into the In-Between phase, where it feels like a roller coaster. They’re up one minute and down the next. They’ve lost all sense of the ground beneath them. They feel lost, alone, confused, anxious. These are all a normal reactions to the In-Between phase. And this is where the supports outlined above can play a key role in helping them find themselves, or at least give them some momentary sanity.
Just like with Letting Go, this phase, too, moves on their own time frame. It may take your student a few weeks to adjust and move through the icky In-Between. Or, it may take them the entire academic year. Everyone moves through this at their own speed because it’s a heart-process, not a calendar-driven-end-of-semester date
Eventually, and hopefully, your student will begin to feel more at ease, more like they belong in their new environment. They’ve begun to redefine themselves as a young adult, as a college student, as someone with more responsibilities. They begin to believe, or not, that they’re going to make it. And this is a good thing! They are Accepting a New Way of being in this world. When this happens, celebrate this final transition!
What happens if they don’t find that they belong in college? This happens, too, and while the world may look at them as failures, there is a lot to be gained from this transition. Maybe they decide living in another state to attend school is not for them. Maybe they’ve learned that for now, they really want to work. Too many times I think we as parents perpetuate that this means they’ve failed, or let us down. Instead of going in this direction, how can you support your son or daughter to learn from this experience? What do they now know about themselves that they didn’t before starting college?
Celebrate this knowledge. It’s really a priceless opportunity that can help them move forward in their lives towards new possibilities and opportunities.
Lastly, remind your student that this transition time is one of the many transitions that will pass through on life’s journey Ask them what they’ve learned. What is the wisdom they can take with them into future transitions? Because, as we all know, there will be more life transitions. They may graduate from college or flunk out, move to a new city with a new job and have to make new friends. They may get married, have children, and then be the ones to watch their nest empty.
Ginny Taylor is a life transition mentor at Women of Wonder where she guides women in life-changing transitions towards a new beginning. Journaling and creative expression are some of the practices she helps women utilize on their transition journey. She is a certified Transition Writing Specialist, certified Journal to the Self instructor, and holds an MFA in creative writing. Read more about Ginny here.
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