Monday, August 3, 2009

Preparing Your Freshman for College

All over the country, families are planning their last of the summer vacations; back to school ads will soon bombard your Sunday paper. For most kids—and parents—the return of the school year presents both excitement and new challenges. For those who will be sending students off to college for the first time, emotions may be mixed.

The first year of college presents a number of new opportunities, and with new experiences come new challenges, new fears, and new anxieties. Regardless of which party states that they will feel the greatest relief when cars are unpacked and the goodbye hugs, waves (and for some, tears) ensue, both parties will feel some appropriate degree of anxiety.

There are a number of ways parents can be more proactive in helping psychologically prepare their child for college and aid in the transition and adjustment.

1. Communicate your concerns. Have a conversation about some of the things that you are concerned they will encounter. While the communication should not be with the motivation to inspire fear, don’t be na├»ve. College will entail both positive and negative experiences. Communication should include concerns about drug and alcohol use, sexual relationships, encountering diversity, and moral challenges. Beginning a conversation with your student about some of these concerns will hopefully open up a dialogue that will prepare them as well as present the opportunity for parents to have some of their fears reduced.

2. Encourage them to be prepared to ask for help. Even the most well adjusted and adaptable student will be thrown for a loop at some point during their first few months, whether with a roommate, in the classroom, or outside of campus. Many of the students who enter college were the stars and highest achievers in high school, and may not have had significant experiences with needing help. With your encouragement, they can learn that asking for assistance is an indicator of growth and maturity, not a sign of weakness.

3. Encourage them to ask for help early. Many students defeat themselves by asking for help when it’s too late, or when they are past the point of more minor intervention and are in “crises mode”. Instructors will be more open if they are approached a month before a major exam or assignment is due; tutoring is more helpful the earlier in the semester you begin; counseling can help you learn to balance before you become so overwhelmed that you begin to skip classes or isolate yourself.

4. Encourage them to use the resources. College is one of the only times that students will have access to so many free (well, included in their tuition payment, room and board) services. Most university campuses have counseling centers, where students have access to free—or mostly free—individual and/or group therapy. There is also the learning and writing center, career services, and disability services. Students can receive tutoring, have papers edited, learn to correctly use APA style, have their resumes critiqued, perfect their interview skills, and gain support for a previous diagnosis such as ADHD or a learning disability.

5. Encourage them to advocate for themselves—don’t do it for them. Two of the developmental tasks of college students are achieving competence and becoming autonomous. Help your college student develop these skills by making suggestions or offering possible strategies. Encourage them to meet with their advisors or professors or to seek out support services themselves before calling the Counseling Center or the Dean of the department for them.

6. Encourage them to become involved—but not too involved. Higher education research shows that social integration contributes to retention. Most institutions have hundreds of campus organizations, including volunteer opportunities. Encourage them to find a group that appeals to them to become involved, but also encourage them to pace themselves. There are always opportunities for involvement, and without a good balance, it’s possible to spend so much time with organizations and involvement that academics are neglected.

7. Encourage them to be open—to new experiences, new groups, new ideas. College is about growing, and what they enjoy in college may be different from activities and peers from high school. There will be opportunities available on a college campus that you may have never thought to become involved in, which go beyond athletics or the traditional sorority or fraternity. Encourage them to find a new activity that they may be even slightly interested in and attend one meeting; they may find that they enjoy it more than they thought or it may not be a good fit. If nothing else, they have been exposed to something new, and may meet new people in the process.

The transition to college can be both exciting and daunting. Be prepared to offer support and encouragement as they make the adjustment. Even though they attended orientation and grabbed almost all of the “important” information, more than likely they have not read much—or any—of it and will need your guidance in pointing them in the right direction.

Editor's Note: Nyaka Niilampti is a psychologist at Southeast Psych in Charlotte. She has a Ph.D. from Temple University, a master's in sports psychology from UNC-Chapel Hill, and a bachelor's degree from Princeton. Before coming to Southeast Psych, she has worked in university counseling centers, secondary schools, and community mental health centers.