The work of a child psychologist is seasonal. There are two types of clients who frequently show up in my office for the first time during the month of August. First, there are the children who are anxious about the start of a new school year. The calendar flips to August, and all of sudden, these kids can’t relax and they can’t sleep. They are plagued by thoughts like “What if I get a mean teacher?” and “What if I can’t learn the times tables?” and “What if I don’t have any friends in my lunch period?”. Some are repeat customers; they go through this a few weeks before the start of each new school year. For some, it’s a one-and-done experience.
The other type of client that shows up in August is the rising college freshman. About a quarter of the time, they are feeling some apprehension about the giant step that is the transition from high school to college, especially if college means leaving home and living on their own. More often than not, though, the young adult shows up in my office accompanied by a parent who is questioning his or her readiness to take that giant step. This post is for those parents, one of whom recently said to me
The closer it gets to time for her to go, the less confident I am that she is really, really ready for college. – Mrs. Smyth
This mother’s concerns were vague and difficult to understand given that the young woman in question had been highly successful in high school. The concerns were more about self-discipline and setting priorities around studying and socializing. There were also concerns about “partying” which likely stemmed from the fact that the first Smyth child to go to college had been in trouble several times for violating his dorm’s rules about drinking alcohol.
If you and your young adult child have made it to this point, I am assuming that he or she has graduated from high school, has applied to and been accepted by at least one college, and at some point in time, has felt ready to make the transition. I am assuming that at some point, you agreed that your young adult was ready or would be ready by the start of the fall semester. I am assuming that your consternation is, at least in part, due to some normal anxiety about letting go; after all, this grown-up person was once your little baby. Of course, it is going to be hard to get used to life without seeing him on a daily basis. Of course, you are going to miss the heck out of her.
Despite your anxiety about what to do, you really only have two, maybe three, choices. One, you can stay on the path you and your young adult child have embarked on, help him purchase and pack everything he needs for college, and then hug him tightly and drop him off on move-in day. Two, you can tell her you don’t believe she’s ready for the giant step and that she has to make a different plan for her future. Or, in some instances, you may be able to arrange for a smaller step such as living at home and going to a local college or deferring enrollment until you believe your young adult child is ready.
But, Mom or Dad, it is AUGUST! In my experience, this is much too late to do much of anything except for stay the course. The good news is that almost every one of your recent high school graduates will make a successful transition to college. For some, it will be bumpy. For a few, it will be really bumpy. For an even smaller number, it will be really really bumpy. And then, it will be okay.
For only a very small number of young adults will the transition to college be too much to handle. Not knowing for certain which group your own young adult belongs to, it is important to spend time over the next month clarifying expectations and defining success. For the Smyth family – Mom, Dad, and 18-year-old Nora – the following agreement made sense. It addresses the concerns of the parents, mostly Mom, as well as Nora’s concerns.
- Mom and Dad will continue to provide financial support for college as long as Nora is maintaining a 3.0 GPA. [This is a tough standard, but Nora is a gifted young woman and earned straight A’s during both her junior and senior years of high school. It is important that this be a realistic goal for the individual.]
- Mom and Dad will pay for tuition, room and board, and books. Nora will have to use her savings and/or work part-time to cover discretionary expenses such as off-campus meals, concerts, and clothes.
- Nora must sign a waiver which allows Mom and Dad to access her academic records and/or provide them with the password. Nora must show final grades to parents.
- Mom and Dad will not continue financial support if Nora violates school rules and faces disciplinary action by the school.
The plan for the Smyths is that they will evaluate how things are going academically, behaviorally, and emotionally for Nora after the first semester. Nora is comfortable with this plan because she anticipates success in all arenas. Mom and Dad are comfortable with this plan because it gives Nora a chance to demonstrate that she is in fact ready for college and, at the same time, limits their financial exposure.
There is a great risk in telling a young adult who has one foot out the door that he has to make a new plan. No matter how parents couch it, the message sounds like “We don’t believe in you” and “We expect you to fail.” This message does not set the young adult up to succeed in whatever Plan B she concocts.
People learn from their mistakes. I’ve seen plenty of young adults go off to college, have a rough go of it in the first semester, use the experience to figure out what they need to do differently, and go back to school to find great success. I have also seen angry young adults, who were not supported in their desire to go to college, flounder and blame their parents for ruining their lives. And, I have seen young adults who did so poorly in their first semester of college that they ended up in behavioral trouble or with failing grades. As tough as it is when this happens, these young adults have no one to blame but themselves. By extension, these young adults recognize that only they can change their behavior so that they can succeed in their next attempt at college or work.
So, if you and your young adult have made it to August with a plan in place for her to go to college, and there is no clear reason to change course (such as a depressive episode or substance abuse, for example), then let her go. Give him the message that you believe in him and want to see him be successful. Be clear and reasonable about your expectations so that you feel comfortable letting her go. Then, hold your breath for those first few weeks. Chances are, you will be ready to exhale and enjoy watching your young adult blossom before too long.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]