By Megan Sutsko, Psy.D. Licensed Psychologist
There are significant moments in a child’s development that elicit both joy and anxiety for parents. These moments remind us of the unstoppable truth that, from the instant a child is brought into the world, they are moving away from their parents and towards independence; first steps, first day of school, graduations, learning to drive, moving out for college, and of course, getting married and one day having children of their own.
In my work with teens, young adults, and families, it has become apparent that navigating the college departure with wisdom and bravery is crucial to the successful launch of our children out into the world.
To be clear, I am not talking about the wisdom and bravery of the children, but rather the parents that are asking themselves the terrifying questions, “Is he/she ready? Did we do enough? Will he/she be okay?”
When the answers to these questions aren’t reassuring, many parents succumb to the urge to keep their graduates close to home and still under their wing. This is often a misguided impulse that can stunt and contaminate the development of the college-aged child.
So, what are the benchmarks of collegiate readiness?
By twelfth grade most college bound students and their parents are well versed in the academic expectations and criteria involved in pursuing higher education. This is only one (in my opinion very small) piece of the puzzle. The social and emotional readiness, maturity, and life skills of an emerging young adult are crucial to their success outside the family home.
A few important factors:
- Ability to problem solve
- Ability to know when and where to ask for help
- Work ethic, organization, time and money management
- Social Skills
- Self–efficacy and Self-reliance
Anxious parents often overlook that just as their teens are emerging into adulthood, so too are these skills emerging.
No college freshman is completely ready or has the above list nailed down. Most ADULTS don’t have the above list nailed down. While it is the job of parents to prepare their children to be productive and functioning members of society, college is the “warm up.” It is okay for college freshman to practice and learn these skills while living away. Being out on their own often necessitates and fosters this learning in a way that is just not possible when they are home.
Individuals are greatly empowered when they face and overcome challenges all by themselves. Failure is key, and is the quickest way to learn. The college experience has traditionally served as a gateway for teenagers to explore independence and adulthood while still having the safety net of their parents support.
It is important to loosen the ties enough so that this process can happen.
The big question is – HOW do you do that?
While there is not one correct option for every family, it is important to consider physical distance and living situation for college freshmen. Being at least a few hours away from their hometown eradicates the temptation to run home for support or visits every weekend.
If financially feasible, it is wonderful for students to attend college in another part of the country. Exposure to new states, cultures, and climates broaden an individual’s perspective and breaks down barriers about where they can see themselves in future.
In my work with this age group, I have seen a huge positive difference when students start out in the dorms or on campus living. Setting a student up in an off campus apartment with high school classmates immediately stifles their ability to “buy-in” to campus life and make new friends. Finding comfort in their new environment very much hinges upon the student creating a social network on campus and peers that are invested in the same academic and developmental goals.
In addition to physical environment, it is good for parents to set up a financial arrangement and budget for each semester in addition to expectations for academics. After the groundwork is laid, it is up to the student to manage his/her time, resources, and money over the course of the semester with as little parental involvement as possible.
Another way to encourage independence is to allow your children to solve their own problems once on campus. Switching roommates, dropping classes, or dealing with a difficult professor are all wonderful practice opportunities for them to navigate the adult world (hopefully they have been practicing this in high school as well).
Time and time again I hear parents fretting over the immaturity of their High School Senior, or insistence that a child attend school in the hometown. Let me share some of the reassurances that I offer these parents:
- Until you let go and loosen the ties, your child cannot fully reach his/her potential
- He/She does not have to possess every skill necessary to make it on their own. These skills are emerging and going away will aid the process.
- Going away to school empowers your child to think of himself/ herself as an adult and broadens their perception of where they can live. It also exposes them to a more diverse group of peers.
- When we “help” our young adult children too much, we are often deflating their self-esteem and self-efficacy.
Parents of college bound children – Take a deep breath, have faith that you have done your best to prepare your child, and let go. Keep an open mind about what your child is capable of, and consider schools that may be outside your own comfort zone. The benefits for your child will be worth it.