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Have This Conversation Before Your Student Leaves for College

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Student leaving home for college.

Remember when you had your first child and, walking out of the hospital, you wondered how anyone could actually be entrusting you with this fragile bundle that did not even fit into that ridiculous car seat?

Yes, you read the books, assembled the crib, bought the onesies. But, really, why did everyone think you knew what you were doing?

For many students, that is how they feel when the last suitcase has been loaded into the SUV and Mom and Dad are driving them to the first days of college. Yes, they have filled in the college orientation forms, bought extra-long sheets, emailed the roommate, read up on college dorm life. But why did no one see they didn’t know what they were doing?

College is an exciting but scary frontier for even the most put-together students. But parents of soon-to-be-freshmen can take steps now to make their student’s journey a little less nerve-wracking.

To begin, make a list of all the things – big and small – you assume your son or daughter will know how to do when they are away at school. Little things include doing laundry, navigating around campus, refilling a prescription. Big things include making friends, getting enough sleep, eating healthy, doing homework.

Now, look at the list and consider how much you have employed magical thinking. If they never did laundry at home, why do you imagine their clothes are not going to all be gray by the end of the semester? Are you assuming they will make friends because they have good friends now (the same friends they have had since kindergarten, or the friends they have because the families live in the neighborhood)? Do you believe they will excel in their classes because you did when you were in college?

Once you have subtracted magical thinking, you have a list of all the things you should talk to your child about.

But before you do, ask that child to make a list of all the things they are worried about or afraid they don’t know how to do. And this is key: Preface your request by assuring them you are not going to judge their character by their responses. You know they are capable – after all, they got through the college admissions process. But you also know they have some concerns, as anyone does when they start something new.

The lists are important because general “Are you worried about anything?” conversations often either don’t happen or just touch on surface issues. Making a list means you and your student are setting aside time to dig deep and to consider huge issues as well as smaller concerns. This should be no problem for either of you. Your child has made birthday-gift lists that included “new car” as well as “socks.” You have made to-do lists that included “paint house” and “take out garbage.”

Now, exchange lists and start talking.

You might be surprised at the things that worry them: What happens if I get sick? What if my roommate has a boyfriend who stays over? What if I get a C on my exam? (This last concern is usually followed by: Will you be mad?)

And they might be surprised at the things you think they already know how to do. (When my son drove out of the driveway en route to college his first year, I remember wondering vaguely if he had a clue about how often he should change his sheets.)

Some things are easy to sort out. You have to separate your white T-shirts from your jeans in the laundry room. I will move your prescription now to the pharmacy near campus. We can walk around the quad and see where your classes are and where you might eat lunch. (At this point, you and your student have to decide when you are being a helicopter parent and when you are being helpful. Maybe they just need your advice about doing a trial first-day run, not your actual mortifying presence. But maybe not.)

Other concerns require deeper conversations. If they are worried about how to say no to drugs and alcohol (and, p.s., this is your lucky day if they are), you might want to role-play specific situations or just brainstorm possible solutions. If you are apprehensive about distractions preventing them from studying or sleeping, you should engage them in a conversation about that topic. Gauge their feelings, express yours, offer ideas, hear theirs.

Of course you cannot – and should not – anticipate every need, every concern, every crisis.

One of your expectations as you send your child out the door in August or September is that they will find ways, on their own, inside and outside the classroom, to cope with whatever college life throws their way. That is part of what is both exciting and terrifying to everyone involved.

The important point is to let them know you have thought about this new chapter in their lives and stand ready to help them enter it. Today, that means exchanging lists. Tomorrow, it may mean a few back-and-forth texts about buying new or used books or a long phone conversation on a Sunday night about how to get more involved in campus activities as a way to ease homesickness.

The worst thing that can happen as you suggest, write and compare lists is that, for the 10,000th time, you will hear some variation of “Oh, Mom” or “Seriously, Dad, I’m not a child.”

The best thing is you will ease a little of the tension your child is bound to experience, whether they admit it or not, as they prepare to take those first steps into adulthood.

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