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How To Help Our Girls Transition to College

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 How To Help Our Girls Transition to College

As a college transition coach, I’ve seen the worry, excitement and anxiety of parents sending their daughters off to college. The hopeful optimism of “she’ll be fine,” mingled with the fear that comes from wondering what may really be going on … and what may be to come. And I’ve heard plenty of mixed feelings from the girls themselves, as they learn to navigate a brand new terrain that requires new levels of responsibility, intensity and problemsolving that are the hallmarks of transitioning from high school to college.

Our daughters need our help

You don’t have to look far to find research that paints a very scary picture for the college freshman: Lowered self-esteem in young women. Academic stressors. Social demands. The hook-up culture that brands a boy as “manly” but reflects negatively on the girl. Black-outs. Binge drinking. Dramatically increased rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Each young woman thinking she is the only one who don’t have it “figured out.”

It’s a whole new world out there. Throughout high school, many of our daughters are fully supported and “enjoy” the benefit of layer upon layer of checks and balances. Parents are there to issue curfews, check on them when they’re sick, and help them meet school deadlines. Their coaches and teachers are yet another support system, reaching out to a girl who isn’t acting “quite right,” encouraging them and holding them accountable to be their best. The trusted teen therapist is there for that additional emotional safety net.

But, in August, all of this disappears and is replaced with the ultimate freedom our daughters are both thrilled and nervous to experience at college. We’re no longer around to keep them focused and safe. Their professors won’t know – and may not even care – if they show up for class and do not see it as their responsibility to hold our daughters’ hands while they adjust to the academic rigor of higher education. So forget the active mentoring girls experienced from teachers in high school. And their trusted therapist? Well, therapists are often limited by professional guidelines in their geographical reach and may not be able to continue in a distance relationship with your teen.

So, all of this support goes away. In its place is a culture where boundaries are few, anxieties and insecurities are increased, and the pressure to discover – and then become – who she really is intensifies.

We need to understand freshman culture

In over three decades of building a therapy and coaching practice, I realized that even while parents spend and leverage countless hours, dollars and relationships helping their daughters get into the college, there are precious few resources available to equip these young women socially and emotionally to succeed in the biggest transition of life to date: freshman year of college.

I guess I should mention that I’m not only a licensed therapist, certified life coach, and college transition coach with over 30-plus years of experience, I’m also a mom of two young adults and happen to be sending my youngest and only daughter off to college in the fall. I also run Freshman 2.0 College Bound retreat to offer rising freshman the opportunity to further develop the skills that they will need in order to successfully transition to college.

I know the risks and risk factors for various behaviors. I know that the first six weeks of my daughter’s college experience are when it will be the easiest for her to meet new people and be open to new experiences.

I know the pressures girls feel to hook up and their mixed feelings about it afterwards. I know the tendencies to self-medicate when alcohol and drugs are prevalent and the support she’s depended on her whole life seems to have disappeared.

I know that the first few months of her freshman year she is most at risk for being sexually assaulted. I also know that although as parents we try to plant many seeds of wisdom, it is now completely up to her which choices she will make, at a time where the consequences are more significant.

Our daughters need these tools for freshman year

  • A trusted adult mentor. What your daughter needs the most is one adult who can support her, be responsive to her needs, ask her the questions that will help her make good decisions, check in on her and be there in those dark and confusing moments. Help your daughter find a trusted adult to help her navigate her freshman year.

  • The gift of honest communication. As parents we fail our daughters if we have our heads in the sand and don’t accept and discuss the risks associated with substance use and abuse in college. It’s not enough to just say, “don’t drink or do drugs.” Empower her to say “no” if that is what she chooses for herself, and help her understand the difference between social drinking and binge drinking. Guide her in this new frontier. For instance, remind her never to put her drink down or accept a drink without knowing what’s in it and to only experiment with any alcohol or substances with close friends and in a familiar and safe environment.

  • A roommate survival guide. Not all roommates are matches made in heaven. Encourage your daughter to discuss – up front – situations that may become issues, including standards of neatness, and overnight guests. Remind her that her roommate doesn’t need to be her best friend but being respectful is non-negotiable.

  • Help for homesickeness. No, this doesn’t mean texting and calling or even being available for constant communication with your daughter. This can actually make her homesickness worse. Instead, set up a routine with clear expectations for connecting with her regularly. Encourage her to set up a group chat or private Facebook group for her high school friends to remain connected, and to visit home – once – before Thanksgiving break, especially if she is struggling.

  • A refresher course healthy communication and conflict resolution. Remind your daughter of all she already knows about how to effectively communicate how she's feeling – and why – and what she needs from others. Remember to reinforce that timing and tone can make all the difference. Remind her that everyone else is trying to adjust as well. Therefore, most of what others say or do to her likely has nothing to do with her. Encourage her to be empathic and generous in her words and actions even when others are not. This will help her deal far more effectively with the conflicts that will inevitably arise early in her college experience.

Why does she need all of this?

If you’re like many college parents, you may be thinking, “I was fine in college… and I’m sure my daughter will be, too.” Tempting thinking, but as ideal as this thinking may be, the reality – I would bet – is that your daughter is used to having a safety net both at school and at home and that the challenges she will face far outweigh those that you faced at her age.

Here’s why:

Times have changed. The party culture is dramatically more dangerous and significant – with riskier choices – than it was when we were in school. Interpersonal communication and connection has fallen by the wayside as our daughters rely on digital texts, tweets and snaps. Deep authentic “girlfriend” relationships are harder to find, harder to create and harder to sustain for our girls. Loneliness. Insecurity. Anxiety. Shame. Confusion … all have the potential to go unchecked when your daughter is out on her own for the first time.

College girls are losing themselves and their voices, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Approaching this new time in their lives as an amazing opportunity to explore new ideas, people, and aspects of themselves will help to lay a foundation for true learning and impressive growth. With the proper support and preparation, our daughters will stay grounded, experiment safely, make lifelong friends and successfully navigate the barrage of choices and challenges that accompany the excitement and freedom of freshman year.

Knowing all of this doesn’t make it any easier. And I’ve found the market to be incredibly lacking in resources for this very under-served niche of girls in transition. It’s why I created our annual Freshman 2.0 College Bound retreat to offer rising freshman the opportunity to further develop the skills that they will need in order to successfully transition to college. This program includes topics such as stress management tools like mindfulness, conflict resolution skills, value based decision making, and a nutritionist who has helpful ideas about how not to become a freshman 15 statistic … all of this and more led by professionals and college upperclass women just prior to move in day.

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Written by Pam Willsey

Pam Willsey-profile-picture

Pam Willsey, a licensed therapist and certified life coach, is the industry leader in equipping young women to navigate the challenges and opportunities of their Freshman year. She is the founder of the Freshmen 2.0 College Bound program, the “real deal girls project,” and has been leading "The Grrrls Connection" for middle school and high school girls for over 15 years. Willsey, a mother of two, is the CEO of willseyconnections.com, a Boston-based coaching firm.

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