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The Transition to College: 6 Things You Can Do Now to Help Your Child Prepare

High school graduation is around the corner and many parents are wondering how they can prepare their graduating seniors for the transition to college this fall. Dr. Amy Kranzler, Clinical Psychologist and Head of Clinical Services at Handspring Health, suggests ways that parents can support their young adults and set them up for a successful start to college.

Congratulations! You’ve successfully helped your teenager navigate the many challenges of high school. They are now a young adult, off to college this fall. This means you’re off the hook as a parent, right? 

Unfortunately- not just yet.

Now you’re worrying about how to help them succeed once they get there. And with good reason. The transition to college can be a difficult time for young adults, and for their parents. Here are 6 things you can start doing now, to help set your young adult up for success this fall.

1. Teach “Adulting” Skills 

Parents often spend a large amount of time, energy and resources preparing their child for the academic demands of college. But academics are just one of the many new challenges that young adults face when they get to college. They are also learning how to live independently, balance their own schedules, cook their own food, support themselves, manage appointments, communicate with professors, do laundry, make friends, and make decisions about substance use (to name just a few!).

These “Adulting” or basic life skills are the building blocks for a successful transition to college and independence. But many don’t learn these skills in High School, and by the time they are expected to have them mastered, many are too embarrassed to ask for help. This problem has become so common that there is now even an Adulting School dedicated to teaching these skills. By taking the time to teach them these skills, you can set your young adult up for success.

2. Assess Areas of Comfort and Areas of Weakness

One of the most common mistakes parents make is assuming that they know what their child is able to do alone and what they are not. Before they head off for college, sit down with your young adult and make a list together of what skills they will need to master to live independently. Talk through which skills they are confident in, and which would benefit from more learning. It can be helpful to use a list of these skills as a reference to make sure you don’t miss key areas. 

3. Start Early, Small Steps 

Learning all of these new Adulting skills at the same time can be overwhelming. Like any new skill, it can be helpful to start early and break them down into small manageable steps. For example, to support your young adult’s ability to cook for themselves, start by putting them in charge of cooking dinner one night. You might at first be available in the kitchen and offer directions. When they’ve mastered a few recipes, you might leave them alone to prepare dinner independently. Eventually, you might help them learn how to make a grocery list, create and stick to a budget for dinner, consider how to plan a balanced and nutritious meal and even model skills for cleaning up afterwards. The key is to progressively teach them the next level of each skill by providing the instructions and support they need, without doing it for them. Scaffolding skills in this way can help build confidence and mastery and set your young adult up for success.

4. Teach Self-Care Skills- and don’t skip the basics!

As many as 85% of college students report feeling overwhelmed by everything they have to do. One of the best ways to increase resilience and prepare your young adult to manage their stress is by teaching them the basics of self-care. Start with the basics by talking to them about the importance of paying attention to their sleep, nutrition, and exercise. 

  • Sleep: Help your young adult figure out how much sleep they need. Then talk to them about prioritizing getting those hours, even when their schedules might vary from day to day. Review the basics of sleep hygiene and problem solve areas that are more difficult for them.
  • Nutrition: Help your young adult identify the way food impacts their mood. Focus on the way some foods might be more tempting when they are stressed (e.g. loading up on potato chips instead of regular healthy meals during finals). Help them strategize ways to maintain a balanced diet while living on campus. Don’t forget to discuss the importance of drinking enough water. 
  • Exercise: Regular exercise is one of the most important ways to maintain both physical and emotional health. Experts are recognizing how effective consistent physical activity can be in improving mood. Talk to your young adult about easy ways they can incorporate exercise into their daily life on campus. 

5. Teach an Approach Mindset

Regardless of how well prepared they are, young adults will have to face many overwhelming, new tasks and demands when they first leave home. This is OK, and even a good thing! Where problems arise is when they become stuck in patterns of avoidance, letting their anxiety take control. The more a person avoids an anxiety-provoking task like emailing a professor, the more anxiety-provoking it becomes. College freshmen can become so overwhelmed by everything they have to balance that they just avoid it all and spend time on their phones. Or they avoid just the tasks that are most stressful. This can be a relief in the short term. But in the long term, it adds to their stress as they fall even more behind on work, and makes it even harder for them to face these tasks the next time.  

Teach your young adult how to approach anxiety-provoking situations. Model this at home by doing it yourself! You might show them how you talk yourself through a stressful or new situation. Talk to them about how they can problem-solve, break tasks down into small manageable steps, and use self-talk and cheerleading during moments of anxiety. When your child feels overwhelmed, it is tempting to jump in and solve the problem for them. But this communicates to them that they aren’t able to solve problems on their own, and can increase anxiety. Instead, try using these moments to encourage them to practice problem-solving and face their fears. 

6. Teach them what to do when they don’t know what to do

Most importantly, prepare your young adult to be unprepared. Even with excellent Adulting and problem-solving skills, there will be moments when they need help. Teach your young adult to expect this, and that reaching out for support when needed is also an important part of being an independent adult. It can be helpful to talk about specific resources they have access to on-campus so that they know who to reach out to when they need help. Examples might include the student writing center, academic advisor, or campus counseling center. Review with them signs that might tell them when they might benefit from help, and how to reach out for that help. 

Handspring Can Help 

At Handspring Health, we know how important and challenging the transition to adulthood can be. We’ve launched a Young Adult Program to support young adults and provide them with the tools they need to successfully navigate this time. If your young adult needs more support, book a free consult today.