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Countdown to College: How to Prepare Your Student (and Yourself) Emotionally and Practically

PreCollegeBingoFamilies who have a student heading off to college soon may find themselves doing a dance I call the pre-college limbo. This dance takes many forms. On the one hand there’s the poignant waltz: where you are overflowing with love, pride and also a sense of impending sadness of missing your child who is about to head off on an exciting new chapter without you. Then on the other hand there’s the whatever is the name for the opposite of a waltz—characterized by a stomping of feet, shaking of head, biting of tongue and inner rants like: who’s dishes are these in the sink, again, I know they’re yours, don’t say that they’re “soaking,” your roommates are never going to put up with this!!!  With these two very different emotional states alternating in rapid succession, parents face the great summer before college dilemma: do you make an issue of those darn dishes in the sink, the gross towels on the floor, the vexing litter of wrappers and receipts dropped decorating your kitchen counters or dropped mindlessly on your car floor if your child is leaving soon, or, do you go easy on your teen, let them off the hook with responsibilities because you want to end on a good conflict-free note (or you are too worn down from trying to hold them accountable) and give up?

I am here to say, parents, while yes, kids are only too happy to oblige your leniency or helplessness, do not stop your parenting now, no matter how ineffectual it feels. This is the countdown to college and sure it would have been great to be working on things like dishes and towels since they were five—but it’s not too late now, in fact, it’s never too late. Whether it’s a month or a week before you pack up the car and sail into their great beyond, this today, is when the real preparation for college begins.

Because most likely your student is not prepared. And, neither is mine… is college anything like what kids experienced in high school? Let's take a look:

Structure imposed by classes all day? No.

Parents there to provide support and monitoring? No.

Someone to tell you when to eat and sleep? No.

Money handed out as needed? No.

Laundry done and delivered to their room? No.

Friends they've known forever to rely on? No.

Teachers who know their parents and are part of the community? No.

So throw out the image of high school for a second and imagine instead your child were going backpacking in the Himalayas. Would you let them coast until the trip? Or would you insist they've got to break in those hiking boots, sample some canned or dehydrated foods, and learn how to walk around carrying their life on their backs?

Kids in college, apart from parent's texts, phone calls and occasional visits, are suddenly set with the task of carrying their own lives on their backs. So in order for kids to feel good -- they need to know how to take care of themselves, and reach out for help when they actually need it.

Here are six things to stop doing now to make your kid's mission to college successful.

Stop doing for, and start doing with Yes, you could throw in that load of laundry, fill up the car with gas, or run to the grocery store for dinner, but why not under-function a little, so your kid can function-up? Share that job with an apprentice. Your child can shadow you at first, learn the ropes, and then hold their own. Break it down into small steps, a few grocery items here, a few loads of laundry there. No, it's not rocket science, but it's also not immediately obvious how to organize and plan and not shrink your jeans.

Stop overlooking (annoying) little habits You've given up the fight about the toothpaste on the sink, the overflowing trash basket, the stomping around at all hours, but you know that these are the very habits that could irritate a roommate. Entitlement be damned-- your kid needs to get used to not everything being his way. Talk to your child about how to share space, without pointing a judgey finger. Make a bingo chart instead!

 

Stop tiptoeing around moodiness and grumpiness  We can explain away the saturnine ways of teens, but what we see on the surface may be a reflection of (very changeable) negative thinking underneath. Approach with caution, but approach -- if he's feeling like everything's wrong because one thing went wrong -- help him get specific and shrink the problem down. If she's irritable because she's nervous about school -- normalize, help her get specific about what she fears, have her fact-check how realistic the fear is.

Stop the parent cash-machine and start budgeting Given the way kids are only too happy to spend your money, you may be surprised that budgetary concerns plague your children's minds. Start with managing weekend-spending money, then stretch the time interval to a week, two weeks, a month etc.

Stop solving sticky situations for them Challenges abound before college begins -- calls about missing transcripts, permissions to get into certain classes, dietary concerns, meal plan options, whether dorm rooms have desk lamps, where to get a parking pass on move-in day. You could launch into all the answers, but don't. Take these off your to-do list, and let your child step in.

Stop interfering in their conflicts If there is an issue with a coach, a friend, a teacher, teach them how to use the reinforcement sandwich for assertiveness: start with the positive or the connection: You're a good friend, I appreciate all of your help, add in the meat: I'm upset that, I'm confused that, I feel uncomfortable that, and end back on connection: I want this to work, I value your input. Try it at home. Stop solving problems, and instead ask questions.

And here are some things to start doing:

Start normalizing worry and anxiety Doesn't normalizing mean reinforcing? No. When kids think their fears are weird, they hide them. When they understand that doubt and anxiety are normal concomitants of uncertainty and new situations, (i.e., everybody is feeling the same way), they start to see them as signals to do something different.

Start talking about resilience There is one continuity between high school and college, both feel like a tightrope walk to success where there is no room for error. Dispel that myth (and make sure you're not promoting it, double standard-style). If you look at the back story of our greatest successes whether in business, the arts, humanitarian leaders--there were the bad days, the bad decisions, bad grades, detours, flops, and it was how they picked up and recovered after--learning invaluable lessons those experiences offered--which allowed them succeed. Practice resilience yourself--don't focus on any one grade your child reports--focus on the trends not the outliers.

Start talking about quality of life How do you help your child off the tight-rope walk? Talk about balance. Look together at the big picture. If they're burnt out from the college admission process, look together at how they want to realign the balance in college: making time for good food, for connection, for fun, and how to do this responsibly.

Start encouraging effective distress tolerance The trigger for many unwise moves for college students is feeling upset. It's not too late to help your child identify some healthy strategies when they are upset: exercising, reaching out to a friend, a couple of yoga positions, getting up and walking the hall will give them the sense of options which they may not feel when it's them and the four walls.

So take advantage of these dwindling days between high school and college—and even if your child is already in college (or out!) no time like the present. This is a great opportunity to build up valuable life skills and emotional tools to support them through their college years and beyond. And who knows, they may just be the only kid on their hall who actually knows how to do laundry and make ramen. Here's to a great start to college! And as always, here's to less worry all around. 

For more ideas about building resilience and taking charge of anxiety, please check out my books,  for parents: Freeing Your Child from Anxiety and for your student, yourself, or any adult: Freeing Yourself from Anxiety


©Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., 2019 A version of this post was previously published on Newsworks.org  If you like this post, please share!