Character is the key

Now that there are only weeks left before your teen leaves home to live in residence at college or university, it may feel a little too close for comfort – for you, anyway! If you’re like most parents, you support your teen during the application process. However, perhaps you silently pray that he or she will choose the university closest to home, so that you can still see them every morning and night. So that you can make sure they’re safe.

However, that’s not how it turns out for many. Come September, thousands of teenagers will flock to a new place of learning, an hour or more away from home. Most will not know as many people as they did in elementary or high school, many will only have visited and toured campus once or twice. The majority of students (and their parents) will be feeling both excited and anxious – likely more of the latter!

If your teen has lived away from home for weeks at a time – maybe at another parent’s home or at overnight camp, for example, he or she may be a little more prepared for what’s to come. For those parents and teens who have spent no more than a night or two apart at any time, not seeing one another for weeks will be more difficult. Along with separation anxiety and adjustments, challenges and changes are not just about living apart.

Navigating one’s way around campus can be quite daunting, although campus tours and orientation meetings during Frosh week helps. And of course, everyone is in the same boat, so no one pays attention to students’ arriving late during the first few weeks of class, at least. In addition, making new friends and feeling as if you are the only student who hasn’t met his or her “people” or connected well enough to others to guarantee someone to eat dinner with at the cafeteria, is not unusual. That’s why feeling lonely, anxious and isolated during nights and weekends is most common. After a while, however, students typically either immerse themselves in studying as a form of distraction even, or are scavenging for parties (which often requires becoming comfortable with the drinking culture, for example) since FOMO (fear of missing out) is rampant and there’s some truth to believing that if you don’t get out, get involved or if you isolate yourself behind your dorm room door, it will be harder to meet people. Fortunately, residences are great for meeting people, especially if you step outside of your comfort zone. Students who leave their doors open are more likely to connect with others, even as they walk down the halls, and an open door is a metaphor for “I’m interested in being social,” and that’s a good thing.

In addition to adjusting to getting to know people around campus, living on residence also means getting used to sharing. Even though it’s not impossible, I think that students who are less territorial, more inclined to share their belongings (such as a mop or tea towel, even) with others and who are flexible and resilient, have an easier time adjusting to sharing a large bathroom (sometimes co-ed), laundry room and often, common areas, with other students.

Students often underestimate the strong emotions that arise, especially during the first part of year one away. Anxiety, for example, is experienced by many. Living alone, or with a roommate you’ve never met before, is a big adjustment. This, along with getting used to large lecture halls filled with 500 students at one time, having to manage one’s time well in order to get to class and hand in assignments on time, and making sure that one is eating and exercising well enough to stay healthy, is often quite overwhelming. Fortunately, universities have student wellness centres that offer counselling services to those who want help working through these feelings. Unfortunately, the wait time for an initial appointment and then waiting weeks between appointments, is not good enough. For this reason, students often seek counselling services outside of campus.

Of course, if a student knows that they have unconditional support at home, and that they can reach out regularly to check in and feel heard, this makes a big difference, too. One word of caution, though – if a student returns home for a visit too soon (within a couple of weeks, for example), returning to residence can be more difficult. So, even if your child is feeling a little homesick, try to support him or her from a distance.

Despite the trials and tribulations of first year, most students say that by the end of it, they have grown – not just academically, but emotionally and socially, too. Even those who have wanted to throw in the towel and return home mid way through the first year, are glad they stuck it out.

To read more about how to prepare for and navigate the first year together, check out my latest book, Don’t Leave, Please Go: What you (and your teen) need to know before heading to university or college. In it, I write about my experience as a parent (and those of my teen, too), as we navigated our way through my daughter’s first year away in residence. For more information about Don’t Leave, Please Go, or to purchase a print copy or an e-book, check out DontLeavePleaseGo.com