Helping Your Child Make a Successful Transition to College
This summer, as high school graduates nervously prepare for their first semester of college, parents, guardians, and other family members will be experiencing some of the same feelings and emotions as their student. For many, it will be the first or longest period of time your student has lived away from home. The academic work will be more difficult and he/she will have new independence and responsibility. And while he or she seems unconcerned, chatting with soon-to-be roommates online or picking out bedding at Target, you may be quietly experiencing equal parts pride, excitement, and worry- some of which is related to the challenges (real or unreal) you anticipate he/she will soon face.
Some of those anxiety-provoking challenges are ubiquitous to higher education, and yet it probably isn’t as fraught with danger as we believe. Whether from media portrayal (remember Animal House), our own personal college experiences, or the day-to-day life in a college town, many of us think we know what college students are like, including how much they drink, abuse drugs, and engage in other unsafe activities. It’s likely your student has an equally extreme view, and for him/her this perception can quickly become an expectation that dramatically influences his/her attitude and choices as he/she negotiates new places and people in the campus milieu. Because these misperceptions flourish in the world of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, it is essential we partner with our students to think critically about their upcoming transition to college or university.
As parents and family members, it’s important to keep the following in mind before, during, and after your student’s first days on campus. Speak openly and honestly with him or her, challenge assumptions, and work together to construct a plan, complete with healthy expectations that will be comfortable for both of you. The following may be useful to start or include in your discussions with your college-bound student:
- When asked via anonymous survey in the fall of 2010, 40% of college students said they hadn’t drunk alcohol in the past month; 26.5% don’t drink alcohol, ever.1 These students may not get as much attention as those whose drunken antics are more exciting/annoying/dangerous, but they are on your student’s campus, and strong evidence that the perception that “everyone drinks” is incorrect. If your student doesn’t drink, or doesn’t intend to, he/she should know that one in four of his/her classmates abstains.
- For those who drink alcohol, only 1/3 “binge drink” to blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) greater than .08. Most students make good decisions and limit their alcohol consumption, even if they choose to drink. Be sure you don’t make assumptions yourself, and even if your student does choose to drink, avoid using language that suggests you expect (if not approve) of his or her intoxication.
- 14.2% of students reported in the same anonymous survey during the fall of 2010 that they had used marijuana in the previous month. College offers an opportunity to redefine oneself and make positive changes; past experimentation with marijuana does not mean your student will choose to use at college.
- Many colleges and universities require first-year students to complete an alcohol education program before or soon after classes begin. AlcoholEduTM and other online programs, as well as first-year seminar courses, will help your student understand the potentially deadly effects of alcohol abuse, the warning signs of a possible alcohol poisoning, and practical strategies to reduce risks should he or she choose drink. Check to see if your student has this basic information by asking for his or her thoughts on these classes.
- Almost every campus has a counseling office and certified counselors available to assist your student in navigating an array of issues typically experienced during the transition to college including homesickness, relationships, anxiety, and more. The services are usually covered by a college health fee, i.e. no additional charges will be applied. Many colleges and universities also have a substance abuse prevention office. Here your student will find professionals who are experienced in helping students reduce the consequences of alcohol and drug abuse with personalized assessments, feedback, education and counseling.
- The first six weeks of your student’s college experience will set the tone for the remainder of his or her first year. Before school begins, share your expectations (and listen to his/hers) for the first semester, work together to identify and record a few short term goals. Allow your student to choose for himself/herself with your guidance, and follow up after school begins to see how he or she is doing and make adjustments and offer support.
- Encourage your student to get involved with clubs and activities (check for a Student Activities Office with friendly staff who can help him or her find groups with similar interests), set a consistent study and sleep schedule, and attend all classes. Student engagement with his/her campus community is inversely correlated with alcohol consumption.2
- Most importantly, continue to communicate effectively. Pay attention to what is going on at your student’s school by checking its website and subscribing to receive the student paper (most have an electronic version). Learn the names of the Residence Life staff in your student’s residence hall. Follow the school’s athletic teams. Stay close to your student by expressing your genuine interest in his/her college experience as a whole, the ups and downs he or she is experiencing, and encourage him/her to share with you. Your conscientious and active participation during the next few months will help your student overcome early challenges and seize opportunities as he/she sets the foundation for a successful academic and professional career.
1 American College Health Association (2011). National College Health Assessment II: Reference Group Executive Summary Fall 2010. Linthicum, MD: American College Health Association.
2 Porter, S. R., & Pryor, J. (2007). The effects of heavy episodic alcohol use on student engagement, academic performance, and time use. Journal of College Student Development, 48, 455-468.
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