Although high school students long for the freedom of college, the less-structured environment actually can feel unsettling or, at the worst, out of control.
Having a schedule with too much free time is one of the most anxiety-producing parts of college life, says Ben Locke, associate director of the counseling service at Pennsylvania State University and executive director of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, a research network of more than 280 college counseling centers.
High school should be the time to help children learn how to be responsible for themselves and to budget their own time; however, high school students face overwhelming pressure to boost their college applications, Locke says. Often that means that every minute is booked with activities. “They’re being pressed to succeed – all honors courses, playing different sports, being involved in five different organizations. Students are feeling incredibly overwhelmed to do well and get into college,” he says.
But once there, the lack of the structure leaves them feeling lost and overwhelmed.
“Most college students have free time,” he says. “Sometimes that can be very difficult, especially if they’re (already) struggling with anxiety.”
Emotional issues are a college roadblock
Teens vary in their coping mechanisms for new social situations. But research shows that emotional issues present more of a roadblock to college success than academic challenges, according to The Jed Foundation. The national nonprofit promotes emotional health and works to prevent suicide among college students. Emotional issues can manifest as rage, depression, serious substance abuse or reckless behavior. And one in 10 students report seriously considering suicide within the previous year, according to the foundation.
One of the foundation’s programs, called Transition Year, offers help for teens before, during and after the college transition. With separate sections for parents and students, the Transition Year website covers a wide variety of topics, such as “The Give and Take of Dorm Living” and “Four Things Every Parent Must Know about Emotional Health.”
Parents should be honest about assessing their children, Scott says. Has a student had difficulty being away from home in the past – at sleepovers, summer camp or during class trips? That may be an indication of how college dorm life will go.
“The important thing for parents is to notice any signals and talk about it with the child. Acknowledge what might be hard for them, and develop a plan for dealing with it when the time comes,” Jenna Scott, clinical manager for JED, says.
It’s important to reassure your teenager that anxiety about college is common.
“Many young people have a difficult time with the transition to college from high school,” Scott says. “If a student knows what they are experiencing is common, they might not feel as anxious about it.”
Don’t fear failure in high school
Jessica Lahey, an educator, speaker and author who helps high school students prepare for college, warns parents about over-involvement in the college process. Teenagers need to learn to take responsibility for their priorities before they go off to school.
“What seems to inevitably happen is, when I talk to parents, they would use the possessive pronoun – ‘our application,’ and so forth,” Lahey says. “It’s not ours.. ... The teenager needs to take ownership.”
Lahey writes for various publications, including The New York Times, and is the author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed” (Harper Collins).
When her 16-year-old began preparing for college, he approached it as his project, she says, “much like when he applied to be a camp counselor.”
Give your teen space to be responsible
Beth Wechsler, a licensed independent clinical social worker in private practice on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, has worked for 40 years with children in mental health settings, including public schools and foster care. But most of her expertise in helping teenagers prepare for life in college comes from raising two sons, now in their 20s.
While she and her husband fully supported their sons, they were sometimes intentionally more hands-off than many parents of teens.
“Neither one experienced pressure,” Wechsler says. “They were allowed to back out of programs; nobody ever checked their homework. It’s the inverse of the helicopter parent, the inverse of living through your kids.”
Both boys today are high-achieving professionals who exceeded their parents’ expectations.
Wechsler admits to being rather amazed. While she knows many factors are at play, including a bit of luck, giving her sons that early freedom of choice had obvious advantages, she says.
“To me, the only way a kid can find what they want is to try stuff,” she says. “You want the energy to come from inside the kid, not you.”
Here are some ways you can help your student have the social skills for college:
Encourage independence through a summer program or mission trip.
Brainstorm strategies for going from their highly structured home environment into one that must be self-managed.
Get familiar with support services on campus, such as peer counseling and other mental health services. Some colleges have contacts for independent counselors on their student services website.
Check out the college culture: Do dorms empty on weekends? Is it safe to walk alone at night? Where is the quiet place to study?
Consider a college orientation summer activity. Many schools offer community service or outdoor trips, for example.
Visualize what a perfect first year of college looks like and then figure out some realistic goals.