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Communicating and connecting with your teenager leaving for college

In a previous post I described topics of conversations to have with a teenager leaving home for college. Equally, if not more important, is the process of communication.

Understand the positive power of a strong family foundation. The power of a supportive family is almost unlimited.  Let me be clear that a family does not need to consist of a heterosexual mother and father, 2.5 children, and a golden retriever. A family is a group of people who are committed to one another for the long run, based on their love. If students understand that no matter what, they can depend on their family, any transition will be easier. Research supports this view: the same study of anxiety and depression during the pandemic revealed that family support was associated with fewer psychological disorders.

Develop your family communication skills.  The first step in the communication process may sound simple at first: listen. Too many parents, especially when anxious, tend to lecture, perhaps the worst possible strategy for communicating with teens.  You can express your emotions first, not to meet your needs but to normalize a conversation about feelings.  A parent can open a conversation with a statement like,  “I know this is a hard time for most of us, and I know I’m a bit worried. How are you feeling?” In this way, you acknowledge that it is OK to be frightened or anxious. Listening takes time, accepting some silence, and it isn’t always easy. Your teen may brush you off at first—that’s okay, there will be other opportunities. Keep the lines of communication.

Accept that communication may change. Flexibility will be key for a positive transition to college.  You may hear from your child less often: embrace that as growth. He is learning to depend on other people for support, expanding his social world.  He may primarily use texting or short phone calls when he’s walking.  You also have the right to let your child know that you need to hear from them now and then.  But don’t invade their space by reading their Instagram or Twitter. You can respect their privacy and if you want to learn more about campus life, subscribe to the student newspaper or check the college website. Other students, especially during these uncertain times, may want to stay connected and text or call often. If you already text or talk on the phone with your teen frequently, the contact may stay the same or increase. They are letting you know what they need. There is no absolute right or wrong rate of communication, especially during the first few months of the college transition.

Take care of yourself. It is axiomatic in mental health that if a parent feels psychologically healthy, so will a child.  To support your student, they need to feel that you are OK, that they can leave knowing that the situation at home is solid. This doesn’t mean that your family will be free of stress, but that you will be able to cope or find solutions to problems that arise. This is called “self-efficacy.” You may have lost your job or suffered financial setbacks during this time, or worse, lost a loved one to COVID-19. And you are probably going to miss your child. You may be under additional pressure if you are a single parent, a member of a minority group, or if you work on the front lines of healthcare or a service industry. It also appears that mothers who work outside the home may also be doing the lion’s share of the housework and educational needs of their children. Try to take time for yourself by establishing daily relaxing rituals, like short meditations or breathing exercises or listening to music. Reach out to your partner, a close friend or relative for support. Just as your child needs care, so do you.

This is a time for all of us to focus on values, on what matters most. For most of us, family and education are fundamental. Parents can help their college-age children move through this unexpectedly difficult transition, and we all need to take care of one another.

Featured Image Credit: Image by jcomp via Freepik

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