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Is He Emotionally Ready For College?

Is He Emotionally Ready for College?

How Parents Can Help Prepare the Way

Not all kids are college-bound after high school, but many are. For parents who are sending a child off to college for the first time, reactions are often a mixed bag of pride and worry as they contemplate where their precious baby is going to land.

For teens, becoming independent is an important developmental task.For parents, the war stories and battles won with the first child tend to make the second child’s journey into college a cake-walk. Although we learn from the stories we share, are there common paths or concrete tips for that first-time college send-off?

If you begin the conversation about college with your teenager early enough – I recommend ninth or tenth grade – then, by senior year, most explosive issues can be sorted out, and the conversation can become more mature and thoughtful. Usually, these conflicts are about differing college choices, influences on your child you may not approve of, and the cost of higher education. In time, the teen may be able to see your point of view, and you might see theirs, which can reduce tension.

Along the way, it’s helpful to remember this scientifically grounded piece of information: The teen brain is under construction! It is in the process of losing a huge number of cells, and the focus of the reconstruction and sculpting is on strengthening the connections in the brain to make communication between cells efficient. During this process, behavior and decision-making can be very erratic, but things tend to stabilize between the ages of twenty and twenty-five. The guiding role of parents is important during this phase. Teens are listening, although they may pretend they’re not.

As you and your child plan for college, give specific consideration to these four areas:

1. Educational Environment

Know your child. Does she do better in a small or large class setting? Does she thrive with adult attention, or can she make independent decisions that lead to good social and academic outcomes? Is she organized? Is she a self-starter, or does she require active supervision?

Choosing a college that is in sync with your child’s personality and educational style will create optimum conditions for her to flourish. Talk with your teen about where she would like to go and why. This can be a conversation as early as ninth grade. Doing this will give you a chance to research the school and discuss it with your teen so both of you have time to share your opinions.

2. Social and Emotional Development 

How does your child deal with stress? How did he do with that overnight trip or summer camp? How mature is he in handling difficult situations? How independent is he with ensuring proper nutrition and caring for his physical well-being?

Conversations about these topics should begin during the junior year of high school. Practicing independence at home should be encouraged as a trial run. See if he can rise to the challenge and find his way well before it’s time to depart for a college campus.

3. Independence

Has your teen navigated in the real world independently? Many teens work a job out of necessity, but whether your child needs the income or not, a low-stress job preceding and during senior year will give your child a feel for adult responsibilities and challenges. It can provide insight into how she handles discipline and self-regulation and offer opportunities to teach self-reliance.

4. Special Needs Related to Education and Mental Health

Has your child been identified as having special needs in high school and received educational accommodations, such as extended time or a quiet room for tests? Is she planning to have the same accommodations in college? Most colleges require an evaluation for providing educational accommodations.

Does your child have a need for mental health services? If so, do some research on how to let the college know about your child’s special needs. The size of the college and availability of counseling and special education services may impact the final choice. The quality of the counseling services and reputation are also important.

Once your child has been accepted, talk to your teen about getting on the waiting list for a first appointment with the counseling office. With your teen, begin to discuss educational and mental health special needs and how those needs will be met. Think about whether follow-ups for medications should take place with his established doctors during school breaks, or if he will require a connection with a provider near campus for more regular checks.

If possible, don’t wait until senior year to prepare for life after high school. The earlier you start, the better. Allow teens to make small mistakes so they can learn from them. Take advantage of the remaining time you have together at home to foster responsibility and independence.

Bela Sood, MD
Bela Sood, MD, is a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist in the VCU Department of Psychiatry and specializes in helping children and adolescents with depression, anxiety, and dealing with traumatic events. She has three grown children and one beloved granddaughter. Dr. Sood sees patients at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU’s Virginia Treatment Center for Children.
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