If you’re reading this, chances are you have a high school graduate getting ready to leave home for college. As with most big milestones, feelings of happy expectation are coupled with anxiety about the unknown. I remember when my son left to study abroad his senior year of high school — I was beyond excited for his adventure but had to learn how to calm my over-active imagination of the “what ifs,” knowing I would have little to no ability to help him through this experience.
None of us has as much control as we think — even if our child is studying one town away. That’s why communication in the weeks before and after the move to campus is so vital. Having conversations about life away from home, the college landscape and how to handle “what if” situations can be empowering for both of you. You can hear your student’s concerns, fears and hopes, and maybe they will glean a few nuggets of wisdom from the person who loves them the most — you.
As I asked my college parent friends about conversations they had with their students before the big move away from home, I heard common themes. “I talked with my daughter about drinking and partying… Her dad and I sat with her and watched the documentary The Hunting Ground and talked about date rape, safety and the importance of using a buddy system.” A single mom helped her son make a budget and figure out how to apply for work-study jobs on campus. Another parent made it a priority to discuss drugs and alcohol with her son since “addiction runs in our family.”
The most important thing to do before, during and after any conversation with your student? Trust that you have done a good job.
You may not get to every topic on your mind and in your heart, but sometimes one will lead to another. I believe we never regret the conversations we do have with our daughters and sons, but we may regret the ones we didn’t have. Ideally, we aim to have an open, ongoing dialogue with our students about important issues and these are all topics that should be revisited during the college years as your student continues to grow, learn and change. The following talking points will help you get started.
Talk about drugs and alcohol.
Research shows that parents’ opinions about drugs and alcohol do influence their children’s decisions regarding use. According to the Drug Free Action Alliance, “students whose parents shared messages encouraging the avoidance of alcohol and the adoption of healthy alternatives were less likely to use alcohol and experience negative consequences from alcohol.”
Discuss the consequences of underage drinking, the importance of setting drink limits when students do drink, and using the buddy system at parties. Do your homework so you can explain how certain drugs (both street drugs and misused legal drugs) affect the body and how mixing specific drugs and alcohol can have deadly consequences.
Talk about sexual health and consent.
Sexual health impacts emotional health and emotional health impacts everything else. Though not all college students are sexually active, a large portion are, and some for the first time. Hookup culture (i.e., casual sexual activity outside of steady, committed relationships) has become a norm in high school and college. Discussing contraception, emotional health regarding sexual intimacy and attitudes about sex in general can start your student thinking about their values and attitudes regarding sex and alleviate confusion as your student faces difficult choices.
All college students, male and female, bear responsibility for preventing sexual assault on campus. What is your student’s understanding of consent? What kinds of situations might require that your son or daughter stand up as an active bystander?
Rebekah Jones, Counselor and Supervisor at M.E.S.A. (Moving To End Sexual Assault) in Boulder, Colorado said, “Through my training at M.E.S.A. I have learned that it’s impossible for either party to give consent if anyone is under the influence. Having a son of my own graduating from high school this year and a teenage daughter only highlights the importance for me. If we educate our children that consent is the only way, it becomes the standard and our kids are safer and happier in the long run.”
Talk about time management.
Many college students are figuring out for the first time how to balance their academic and social life. They are now responsible for when and what they eat, when and how much they sleep, exercise, laundry and a lot of studying. There will be a learning curve as they figure out what works best for them. Be ready this fall as they reflect on their experiences to act as a sounding board and make constructive suggestions.
Talk about money management.
This should be the easy one but you’d be surprised. Or maybe you wouldn’t…money is a loaded topic for us adults, too. A recent report entitled Money Matters on Campus assessed the financial attitudes and aptitudes of 42,000 college students and found that most are irresponsible with money, have a hard time sticking to a budget and often forget to pay credit card bills on time. This lack of financial literacy results in more debt for students upon graduation. Talk candidly with your student about finances. Sketch out each semester’s expenses and be clear about which your student is responsible for. Will your student look for a part-time job? Discuss how credit cards work before your student applies for one.
The most important thing to do before, during and after any conversation with your student? Trust that you have done a good job. You’ve been having important discussions with your child throughout their teen years. In addition to trusting you’ve raised an awesome human being, trust your intuition. If you feel that things are “off” they probably are. Though many students thrive in college, the first year has its challenges for everyone. Academic, emotional and physical stressors are enhanced by change. Establishing a weekly check-in time via phone or Skype is a good idea. At the end of the day your child will live and learn, make mistakes that are hopefully not life-altering, and be the wiser for it.