I have been in practice for 20 years, and one of my specialties is working with adolescents and young adults in transition to college. I have seen dozens of twelfth graders and helped them; recently, I’ve seen a bit of a shift, a trend of sorts.
In the past, if I were seeing a teen about to graduate, we’d meet weekly for awhile, during the college application process, deciding the right school, working on their anxieties, and advising good time management. Once spring arrived, I’d start seeing them less, usually only a few times over the summer, with the last session right before leaving for school, and then—Done. If I heard from them, it was usually to check in and talk about a specific issue. I may see them once or twice over the winter break, but often, I heard little or nothing once they settled into their new lives.
I’m not doing anything different, although social media and other technology give us new issues to tackle. However, I’ve found that my young adults keep coming back. Perhaps this is a trend overall, as we have added a new life stage between adolescent and adult, what is usually called “emerging adult,” and parents fear their children coming back home after college. These days they need to call me, FaceTime, and otherwise keep their therapeutic connection going. To me? To home? A friendly face? A nonjudgmental adult? I’m not sure. More of them are leaving but not leaving.
There will always be kids who struggle and come home to do a semester or two at WCC, but this feels different. Teens I send off assuming they’ll do fine are on the phone weeks later full of anxiety. I don’t think I have it all worked out yet, but hopefully these tips will be helpful for those of you facing this situation:
- Young people: Take some distance from home. If you are Snapchatting your home friends night and day, there’s less incentive to go down the hall and meet people. This is a huge change. We went from letters and expensive calls to daily virtual high school reunions. Keep in touch with your friends, but start new group chats with your new friends and neighbors at school. Tarrytown will still be here when you get back.
- Parents: Start giving your kids more alone time to make mistakes. I see a lot of college kids panicking because they can’t solve a problem on their own or can’t see the value in putting in the time to work through a problem. Calling Mom to fix things deprives kids of the learning opportunity of figuring it out themselves and learning they can do it. Every time we solve a problem and meet a challenge, it’s an investment for the next time. When I have to tackle something hard, I will sometimes remind myself of past success—“If I got through X, I can get through Y.” What if my narrative was “Mom got me through X, so she will help me get through Y?” Parents, sometimes just ignore the call.
- Kids, don’t expect for school to feel like home immediately. We all want instant gratification today. I’ve had kids crying to me three weeks in because they feel they’ll never fit in, are somehow socially incompetent because they haven’t made a best friend yet, or fearful they will NEVER master this difficult class. Some kids aren’t ready to be away at school, but most will manage, and three weeks is not enough time to determine which you are. And if you’ve made the wrong decision? So what? It’s a learning experience; you can transfer schools if you find a better fit.
- Expect failure. I think every nervous teen who has ever sat on my couch has heard about the 38 on my first college exam (calculus). My father wanted me to be an engineer, and that sounded interesting, so I went into a fairly prestigious program unprepared. I worked my tail off for that 38 and was devastated. My dad gave me priceless advice: Stick with it for a year—by then I’d know if I liked it and wanted to put in the effort, rather than quit because of a bad grade. After a year, I changed my major, later transferred colleges, and have several degrees under my belt. I had given it enough of a try over those months to figure out I had another calling to pursue. I made great friends at engineering school whom I see and engage with regularly 30+ years later. Bonus, behavioral statistics was a breeze after calculus.
- All my teens have also heard me say, “Except for giving birth there are very few decisions that can’t be reversed.” Did you pick the right college? Who knows? Who cares? You can only make a decision with the information you have at the time. If new information comes to light, you can change paths. Life is more like a meandering river than a straight road. Kids think that these are the BIGGEST decisions they will ever make (not by a longshot!), and they agonize over the fear that they will “make a mistake.” So what? We all make mistakes. Live and learn, move on. Most mistakes are not a big deal. Huge life mistakes with catastrophic consequences are thankfully rare.
- Parents: Take time to discuss “what if” scenarios. Talk about solutions to possible problems, both big and small. Calling home is always an option, especially in an urgent situation, but what other avenues should be tried first? Talk to your child about how to handle things like missing a class, roommate friction, having second thoughts about a class or major, making friends, dating/sex, drinking/drugs, etc. Some of these are smaller problems, such as talking to a professor about a missed class, and some are bigger issues like sex and drugs. Your child needs to head to college armed with some possible solutions in order to feel safe and have less anxiety.
Life wasn’t made to be one smooth ride, nor can we rush our learning experiences. There is tremendous value to every skinned knee and every 38 in calculus. Onwards and Upwards, class of ’19!
Barbara Kapetanakes, PsyD. practices psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow