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Separation Anxiety for College Freshman (and their Parents)

As thousands of teenage freshman head off to live on college campuses this fall, the world will change significantly for them and their parents. For students, gone are their comfortable beds, many in a room with complete privacy. Gone are their home cooked meals, made just the way they like them. Gone is that special couch or chair they slumped into to watch their favorite show on television. Gone is the structure of their day supervised to varying degrees by their on site nurturing parents who believe they must be in some semblance of control at least until this point of their child’s life. The migration of the freshman college student every autumn (at least those who are not commuting) is one of the most traumatic life events for the human species. Although most of these teens have been claiming they are excited and can’t wait to get away, most become very apprehensive as the day approaches knowing their comfort zone is about to be invaded by alien forces.

While the transition to campus life is a major adjustment for teenagers, what about their parents? This is a very anxious time for moms and dads too as they are releasing their child to the custody of someone else, never mind an institution they don’t know very well. Perhaps for the first time, they won’t know what time their child gets in at night, what they are eating on a regular basis, who they are hanging out with or even whether their clothes are clean. When my wife and I dropped off our oldest to her campus for the first time, I believe we were the last parents to leave that night. We had to be sure everything in her dorm room was set up just right and all her favorite food items were there for her. It was a very difficult ride home for us and I don’t recall my wife’s tears letting up until she fell asleep that night.

So what advice do I have for both students and parents during this time of transition? Every teen is different and those who are self assured, outgoing and have experienced being away from home quite a bit already in their life will probably have minimal adjustments. But there will be many others who are perhaps more insecure and will have difficulty with the many changes and/or making new friends. The best thing students can do is get involved right away in anything on campus. I would encourage them to join an intramural sports team or a club that they have some interest in. Sign up for a community service opportunity. Anything that will bring them into contact with other students on campus is a positive first step as they will slowly gravitate toward other students who have similar interests and friendships will definitely evolve. If home is nearby, they should resist the temptation to head there frequently on weekends unless it is necessary to work a job. As for dorm life itself, it won’t be like home for sure as they will need to make adjustments to their life style as they will be living in such close quarters with others. They will need to develop some tolerance and patience for others as not everyone will do things the way that they think they should be done. They should try to talk through issues with roommates and if necessary get their resident advisor involved to help resolve problems.

For parents who are experiencing the anxiety of having a child away at school for the first time, unfortunately only time will ease your mind. You’ll begin to develop some assurance over the next few weeks and months that your child is going to be just fine. I know parents will want to hear from their son or daughter that all is well but resist the temptation to initiate frequent calls or texts as students will need to focus on assimilating to their new environment and of course their academics. They will contact you if there’s something you need to know about. If they indicate they are struggling to fit in, suggest activity engagement as I mentioned above. Send a bunch of their favorite snacks to them as college students love to receive packages from home and these can be very comforting. If there are problems at school, encourage them to first seek resolution on their own with your involvement only being a last resort.

A child heading off to college for the first time can be an emotionally draining event but perhaps with a little guidance and encouragement in the beginning, it will lead to one of the most rewarding experiences of a lifetime.

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