Background: In just a matters of months, thousands of recent high school graduates will be leaving the comfort of their childhood homes embarking onto a new college campus which will become his or her new home for the next four or so years. The college freshman has “officially” shifted from adolescence to adulthood and is now faced with new and different tasks than they experienced during the years of high school. Greater independence, self-responsibility, emotional maturity, and new and different social challenges are all simultaneously introduced which can be exciting for some, but overwhelming for others depending upon both the personality and previous experiences of the individual. Perhaps the most significant difference is that all of these new experiences are withstood without the comfort of their parents being close by for supervision and daily consultation. Despite high school being a time of greater independence and favored autonomy from parents and although most have an internalized feeling of security and endurance, college introduces new and different experiences from any of the previous years. For example, college freshman are required to get themselves up every morning; schedule and manage their courses; do their own laundry; manage their own finances; set their own curfew; have a study schedule; balance a social and academic life; stay in shape; and contemplate their futures. Although exciting, the management of these tasks can also be stressful.
Research indicates that the most difficult aspect of the freshman year is not so much the academic challenges, but the adaptation to living in a new environment away from home. The highest college drop out rate in college is during this first year as well as the greatest incidents of mental illnesses including depression and anxiety disorders. Physical illness is also greatest during this first year as well. The freshman year may be considered a mini rite of passage whereby the years following this one tend to be calmer and more enjoyable. This can be understood as due to experience and adaptation.
However, precautionary measures can be taken ahead of time to help the new freshman better adapt to this challenging year. Parents who assist their children in early preparation for the upcoming change have a significant impact on how their child will adapt to both leaving home and getting settled at college. In fact, and not surprising, the better prepared, the less likely the student will flounder once away from the familiarity of home.
The following are suggestions to help the college-bound freshman to best adapt to college life:
1. During high school, teach and encourage independent skills such as doing laundry; minor cooking; self-waking; balancing checkbooks; and setting up their own appointments. Senior year of high school is a wonderful opportunity to become used to more independent tasks while still in the comfort of having parents close by for consultation and guidance.
2. Visit the college campus ahead of time. Taking a tour of the campus and living conditions over the summer and perhaps even sit in on a few classes, gives the new freshman a sense of what it will be like for them in the Fall.
3. Talk to upper class people about the college experience. When the new college freshman talks to other students from their school about classes, teachers, and college life, many questions are answered beforehand and relieve anxiety.
4. Discuss and plan finance ahead of time. Parents need to talk about money, budgeting, and expenses well in advance giving the student some time to get used to how they will pay for things and manage money. It is always suggested, at least during the first year, that the parents work together with their child to assure that they are comfortable with money and managing it well.
5. Don’t give away their room at home. Although college is their “new” home, the freshman will be mourning the loss of their parents and familiar home life. Being able to come home over the holidays and staying in their childhood room gives them a sense of security and comfort which is very important during this first year away from home.
6. Make home visits easy. Having a plane ticket on hand as well as more frequent visits during the freshman year helps with the transition from home to college. Many college freshman need to “check in” with their parents during this significant year of change.
7. Go visit them. Plan a few trips if possible to visit them between major vacations. This assures them that you are invested in them despite them being away from home. These visits also give you a chance to see how they seem to be managing themselves and to make some suggestions if necessary.
8. Telephone often. During the first year, frequent contact with parents is common. In fact, many parents are amazed on how during high school they did not talk much with their child, but now, once in college, the frequency of talking increases indicating that they need your support and comfort. Make having a cell phone or land line easy for them to have.
9. Help them get settled. Be sure to both help them pack and gather supplies for the year and their rooms and escort them to the college campus in the fall. Most college freshman welcome the help of their parents during this transition and will let you know when they are ready for you to leave – usually after a few hours.
10. Encourage them to get help if they are in trouble. Most colleges have counseling centers which have therapists who have experience with transitional anxiety experienced by incoming freshman. Often getting some support and help early in the college experience speeds up the adaptation to college life which can positively effect the years to come.
In most cases, after some normal bumps during the first year of college, the student adapts to their new developmental phase of life and actually enjoys coming home for visits with their families. In fact, many parents revel in the fact that the adolescent years are finally over and their son or daughter has evolved into a healthy adult. They may actually help you do the dishes and ask YOU how your day was.