As the dog days of summer come upon us many parents are getting ready to send their sons and daughters off to college. This event is an important transition for many families, marking the beginning of those "empty nest" years.
Over the past few years I have seemingly developed a couple of additional specialties in my practice. I suppose it was a natural transition since I work with teenagers in general, but over the last few years I have had several 12th graders in my office that I have helped launch to college as well as a few kids whose parents brought them in after a semester or two away that proved disastrous. From the perspective of my therapist’s chair I have developed some observations and opinions that might be helpful to those with children planning for college.
I feel a lot of worry for this generation of college-bound kids. I don’t say that lightly, because I tend to hear and see it all in my office, and I am not easily pushed to anxiety where adolescent behavior is concerned, but what I see does cause me worry. Times have changed so much, even over just the past ten or fifteen years, that we are sending kids off completely unsupervised who have the coping skills of eleven year-olds. It is not frat parties or casual sex that worries me, it’s that they don’t have the coping skills needed if a class is too difficult, butt heads with a roommate, or find the freedom too overwhelming. Today’s colleges not only don’t have segregated dorms like they did before, girls and boys in different buildings or at least different floors, guests signing in and out, and the like, but they seem to be completely, totally, fully unsupervised. Kids sleep in each other’s rooms. Friends visit from back home or from other colleges and sleep on floors. Suddenly, after living home for 18 years, with presumably some rules, cloistered in their suburban cul-de-sacs, they are living in complete anarchy. Scary.
I suppose we could argue that many of us went off to school and had to cope with the new freedoms afforded us, and we survived. Frat houses have always had the reputation of being dens of sin and debauchery. Some kids rented apartments off campus and had the freedom to come and go at will. But I truly believe that the experiences of previous generations gave them more maturity, more of the coping skills needed to deal with the choices in front of them. Cell phones have changed the dynamic to a degree that I don’t think anyone realizes yet. I’ve heard parents comment that if their child didn’t know he could reach Mom on the cell phone, he would solve his problem in 20 minutes, but since everyone is constantly and instantly accessible, he calls and asks advice rather than pondering the solution himself. Cell phone use goes the other way as well. When I was a teenager, if I came home late, I suffered the consequences afterwards. Today, if a child is not home when the clock strikes "curfew," Mom calls on the cell phone to remind the wayward teenager that it’s time to come home. There is little or no consequence, because the child is not given the opportunity to screw up in the first place. Screwing up is an important step in becoming an adult, and if a teenager is not given the opportunity for minor infractions and the consequences that follow, they have lost out on an important teachable moment, that for every action there is a reaction, for every time one acts irresponsibly, there is an unpleasant consequence. And what better place to screw up than when you are still living under your parents’ watchful eyes?
Consistent with the idea of coming home on time is also the idea of getting places on time. You know, like class, work, appointments. I don’t take it personally when a young adult arrives late for almost every session with me, but I do use it as a teaching tool: "OK, so you are getting ready to go back off to college after spending a year at WCC. You can’t make it to our appointments on time, what are you going to do to get to class on time every day?" Other questions I might ask are, "What are you going to do to ensure you don’t fail your classes again?" or "If you start to fall behind, what will you do to catch up?" Many of today’s young adults haven’t moved passed the magical thinking period of preschool, sometimes simply telling me that they will "just do it," or that after being late, failing out of school, sleeping through classes, etc., they will do this complete 180 and become a star student. Not likely, at least not without some understanding that not meeting expectations will result in failure.
Counties like Westchester are unique because of the socioeconomic status of most of our residents. Some of us may feel like we are struggling, but compared to the rest of the country, the vast majority of us would be considered quite comfortable. Westchester kids want for nothing. They all get cars when the time is right. They are sent off to college with laptops, iPods, cell phones, and other gadgets that most of them didn’t have to work for. After-school jobs, if they have them, often fund shopping and going out with friends, not that used jalopy that most of us saved for. The astronomical cost of college is not a reality to them. Few drive a truck, wait tables, or take out student loans to pay for school. Many parents take out student loans expecting that they will pay them back, not the child. I believe that if parents can afford college, they should pay for it, it certainly gives the child a head start in life, but there is nothing wrong with a small student loan or even an agreement only to pay for school if the child gets good grades and shows responsibility. There’s also nothing wrong with guiding a child to save some money from an after school job, splitting the cost of car insurance or maintenance, or expecting certain chores to be done around the house. I am not suggesting that a parent bankrupt the child or make him tar the driveway, but just some regular responsibilities can help get a youngster ready for the pressure of being on his own.
When kids get to college they are entering an environment where they will be treated like adults — not coddled, not called in their rooms if they are late for class, and not handed a B or an A for simply showing up. Some will struggle through that first semester or two and manage to pull through. Some will have to come home, learning an expensive lesson (expensive for their parents anyway), and plod away at WCC for a year or so until they are ready to go out on their own again. Some will call me from places as far as Colorado, upstate New York, or South Carolina, often with audible tears, asking for help. I’ll check out their Facebook pages and send them messages letting them know I can see what they are up to and am not thrilled. They will come in to see me on breaks, telling me of their escapades since Labor Day, and I will give them firm guidance about not doing stupid things and getting their acts together. Then I’ll cross my fingers and send them back to the hallowed halls of their dorms and classrooms, thinking back to when I was seventeen and hoped I knew it all but feared I knew nothing.
Dr. Barbara Kapetanakes owns the Sleepy Hollow Family Resource Center.