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Different Teen, Different Experience: Your Children's Adjustment to College Will Vary

Cindy Price


Sending a child off to college can be nerve-wracking. It’s natural to worry about them, wondering if they’ll be able to handle the academic challenge, manage all their new responsibilities, and make friends and have a good time.

If you have more than one child, you quickly realize that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to helping them adjust to college. Each of your students is going to have their own unique experiences and outcomes.

Some have no issues acclimating to their new environment, finding a community and fitting right in. Other students have a more rocky transition, especially if they've never lived on their own before. Most of them weather the stormy beginning and go on to have a wonderful time at college.

Different Teens, Different Experiences

The journey of each individual student depends on various factors including the school they attend, their personality, their ability to adjust and make friends plus a lot more.

Take my two teens for example. My son and daughter are both in college and their experiences couldn’t have been more different.

My son started college a year before his younger sister. He’d worked hard to get into the school and we were happy for him, but when he got there, the campus culture wasn’t what he’d expected. Being a reserved guy, he found it hard to make friends. Many of the other freshmen came from the local area and often hung out with their former high school pals, which made my son feel left out.

During his first months on campus, he called home almost every day. Though he never had a problem with his classes and his grades were strong, he confessed to missing us terribly. He made the two-hour trip home to visit nearly every weekend.

When it was her turn, his sister had a completely different time with the transition. She goes to a local college so she isn’t that far from home. This meant that she had the advantage of meeting some of her former high school friends on campus. Right from the start, she loved the independence that came with living in a residence hall. Social and outgoing, she joined several clubs and quickly made more friends. She loves hanging out with her college friends, so she doesn’t visit home that often.

When you have more than one child attending college, you have to keep in mind that they are unique individuals and each wants and needs different things from their experience, which will have a ripple effect on the whole four years of college.

For instance, whether or not a student joins a team, club or Greek organization as a freshman will determine the kind of friends and the social circle they get to run in during their first year and beyond. Similarly, the major they choose will have an impact on how much time they have to socialize and even how stressful their college experience will be in general as some courses are much more demanding than others. Also, students’ personalities and maturity levels can change as they go through college with some growing more outgoing thanks to their experiences while others become more reserved.

Helping Your Teen Adjust to College

The first semester is rough for many freshmen and your student may have returned home for winter break discouraged as well as just plain tired. Adjusting to life away from home in a new environment, managing academic work and trying to build a social circle from scratch can all take their toll. Parents aren’t always prepared for the fact that, in many cases, it can take a full year for a student to settle in on campus and figure out how college works and what they need to do to be happy, healthy and successful.

Some kids might just want to stay in and recharge after a hectic first semester while others might be eager to go out, reconnect with old friends and exchange stories. Your teen might want to hang out and chat with you a lot more than before or they might be withdrawn. As the parent, it’s up to you to pay attention to these changes, keep communication lines open and encourage your student to share their experiences with you so you’re aware of what they’re going through. That way, you’ll have an idea of whether your help is needed and if so, how to best help them.

My son, for instance, needed someone to listen to him and encourage him to get more involved in campus activities. There were definitely times in the fall when I was tempted to jump in the car and dash to the emotional rescue, but I realized that might do more harm than good. This was something he had to work through on his own and he’d be a more resilient person for it. I just had to be supportive and reassure him things would turn out well and they did.

His sister needed less reassurance and more reminders to focus on her school work. She also had some drama with her roommate, but it wasn’t too serious. We had a few talks about giving other people space and being more accommodating of their differences and now they’re both doing fine.

If you’re the parent of a first-year student, here are some ways to help with their ongoing adjustment to college:
  • Be there for them. Things can get pretty lonely especially if it’s your freshman’s first time away from home. Knowing you’re a phone call or visit away will give your student a great deal of comfort.
  • Listen to them, and recognize and acknowledge their feelings. Sometimes all our kids want is someone to share their feelings and experiences with. Learn to give them your full attention when they open up to you. The key is not to dismiss their feelings or interrupt them with opinions or solutions but to just listen and allow them to vent or explore their responses to what they’re going through.
  • Encourage them to find healthy coping mechanisms and get involved in a campus activity or two. Being busy means less time to focus on loneliness or dissatisfaction and they’ll get to meet other students and hopefully make new friends.
  • Don’t swoop in to rescue them. Homesickness, loneliness, and anxiety are all normal emotions for freshmen to experience. You might be worried that they’re having a tough time but remind yourself that this stage of their lives is necessary for them to grow. When you swoop in to rescue them, it sends a message that you’re not confident in their ability to handle the situation. Instead, remain supportive and give them space to work things out. Going through this discomfort will help them grow and become more independent.
  • Don’t compare your student with others. Each freshman’s experience is unique and asking your child to be more like their siblings or peers is unfair. There’s nothing wrong with your teen taking longer to make new friends or getting used to campus life. Comparisons will only make them feel inadequate, and confirm their sense that everyone is having a better time than them (even if this is of course untrue).
  • Be supportive and reassuring. Perhaps the most important thing your college kid needs from you is your support and reassurance. Remind them that what they’re experiencing is perfectly okay for freshmen and that things will eventually get better. Encourage them not to be too hard on themselves but to instead embrace new experiences and make the most of their college life.

Going off to college is a huge deal in a young adult’s life and some emotional upheaval is to be expected. Allow your teen's one-of-kind personality to guide your approach to helping them adjust to their new life.

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    Nature-lover, foodie and family fanatic Cindy Price enjoys focusing on the simpler things in life and finding ways to improve those areas that add peace, meaning and direction. She hopes that, by sharing her triumphs and failures as a mom of three teens through her writing, she can encourage, advise and assist other parents in their journey through raising teenagers into adulthood. Connect with Cindy on Twitter: twitter.com/cindytrprice.

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