Preparing and sending your child off to college is not only a big step for your child but also for you as a parent. For many parents this is an emotional time because not only is their child leaving the “nest” but also there is a feeling of uncertainty on how to truly prepare for this big stage of life. To help understand what are common things parents face when preparing their child to go off to college and how a parent can prepare their child for college, I have interviewed therapist Dove Pressnall, MA, LMFT.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“A native of Oregon, I have lived in very diverse places–from New Guinea to Los Angeles to Africa. I truly enjoy discovering the many ways that people live and make meaning of life. My passion is helping people make sense of their experiences in constructive ways and I get great satisfaction from helping ordinary families get through challenging times. In my free time, I enjoy spending time with friends, eating good food, reading, hiking and seeing the occasional movie. My almost three year old keeps me pretty busy and helps me remember to make time for play.”
What are some parents may face when it comes to preparing their child to go off to college?
“Let’s face it change–even positive change–can be stressful. As parents, we want our children to grow up and lead successful, happy lives. At the same time, our child’s shifting identity–into that of a progressively more independent adult–requires parents to re-evaluate their own identities and where they put their energy. Teenagers in the home are typically in frequent contact with their parents–even just for logistical purposes of scheduling and school/work activities– but, when they go off to college, there is less contact and parents have less to manage on a day to day basis. After years of functioning as the CEO of their child’s life, parents of the college-bound have to re-structure their daily activities. Some parents relish this new freedom, while others grieve the loss of the tight family structure.”
“Parents can also be challenged by the unpredictably uneven progression of this independence. Older adolescents heading off to college want a great deal of autonomy but often still need and benefit from their parents’ support. Parents can find themselves unsure of when to push their fledgling out of the nest a bit and when to swoop in to save the day. Requests for money can be particularly difficult to handle and are often the source of distress for parents who are trying to sort out their children’s needs from their wants. It can also be difficult to judge what are ‘normal’ mistakes or ones that are signs of greater potential problems.”
“Then, there are the practical concerns of the cost and value of education. Parents are often much more acutely aware of the costs and may have conflict with their child over differences in how they value their experience. When you have mortgaged your house to pay tuition and your child decides attending class is optional, it can be distressing.”
What type of impact can those challenges have on their child?
“Students heading off to college do not fit a mold. While our education system divides ‘classes’ up primarily by age, we don’t really all develop in sync. So, a young person might be overwhelmed by the change and additional responsibility and need more parental support. Alternately, students can be quite ready to fend for themselves and feel constrained by parents who are worried and not sure their child is properly prepared. Even after moving out and having their own place for some time, many people view their parents’ home as a safety zone. I have had a number of college-age and even adult clients who were very upset by their parents’ changes to the family home, whether it is a matter of mom turning their childhood room into a guest room or their parents selling the family home to move into a space that better fits their new lifestyle.”
What are some things parents can do to prepare their child to go off to college?
“Well, first of all, parents can do their children a huge favor if they take really good care of themselves and pay attention to their own feelings. One reason I say this is that I truly believe that the saner parents are, the more available they can be to contain and respond to their child–whether that child is in distress or experiencing success. Also, even though they are older and may seem to reject many of their parents’ ways of doing things, teens still learn from us as all children do–through watching and emulation. So, being good to yourself is generally being good to your child.”
“Sitting down and getting a good clear sense of your child’s vision for their life, strengths that may support that vision, and realistic challenges to it can also be very helpful. By helping your child get clear about what they envision (and I don’t mean pinning down a major right away) and begin to think about the choices they are making and whether they fit with that vision, you are providing a foundation for independent decision-making. Sometimes, it starts early in life, with the child growing progressively more independent. However, what really matters is that the progression fits your child and your family, including being a good fit culturally and socially. I also encourage parents to share their own experience of this transition with their child, especially about how family decisions will be made moving forward and the mixed feelings times like this can bring–acknowledging that pride, worry, and anticipation can all be present at the same time.
What type of professional help is available for a family who is preparing their child to go off to college?
“There are a variety of professionals who can be consulted in planning for your child’s transition to college. I encourage parents and students to draw on the knowledge and support of any professional that is a good fit with their needs. School counselors generally help most with planning for the practicalities of college such as application procedures and finding scholarships. A family therapist can help when there are communication difficulties or a lot of worry in the process.”
“I really enjoy working with young people and their families to help them make intentional decisions and learn new skills to help make these transitions easier and more meaningful for everyone. By focusing on what people want in their lives while having a good understanding of the challenges and problems they have experienced and are facing, I help people move toward more of what they would prefer–whether that is less conflict, more connection, to overcome worry, or to properly celebrate their accomplishments. I explore and build on people’s strengths and capabilities to help them handle change in ways that are more satisfying and constructive for them.”
Thank you Dove for doing the interview on how parents can help prepare their child for college. For more information on Dove Pressnall or her work you can check out her website on www.talkwithdove.com.
Risk Taking Teen and Parental Behavior
Disciplining a Rebellious Teen
Signs Your Teen is Using Drugs