Helping Your College Student Feel in Control of Their College Experience

We’ve written several posts about college parents as ”helicopter parents” and about college parents’ important role of coaching from the sidelines.  We still have an important job, but not the same role we had when our student was in high school.  We’ve also used the analogy of teaching our teenager to drive a car.  We need to get out of the driver’s seat and allow them to get behind the wheel.  It’s a disconcerting, and sometimes terrifying, proposition for many parents.

We think this is good advice for parents.  We need to assume a new role.  However, this only works if your student is ready to take control.  One of our tasks as parent is to help our student get ready for college. (Think of it as Driver’s Ed!) This means more than helping to pack the boxes and making trips to the home store for dorm furnishings.  College readiness requires academic readiness, but also ”life” readiness.  Your student needs to be ready to take control when the time comes.  You will feel better, and so will they.

Preparing for college begins long before the summer before your student heads off.  But that summer between high school and college is an important time.  For many students, this is a time of great emotional swings.  One moment they are excited and can’t wait to get started, and another moment they are terrified.  For many students, the terror comes, consciously or unconsciously, because life may feel out of control.  They are not sure where they will live, who their roommate will be, what classes will be like, who their friends will be, or how they will spend their time.  They know there will be expectations — academic, social, financial — but they may not be sure what they will be.  If they aren’t sure what is expected, they can’t be sure they will be able to meet those expectations.

One of the most helpful things that parents can do during the summer before college is to help your student work toward feeling in control of their experience.  Of course, it is impossible to control everything, but the more that your student can anticipate what is to come and feel that they have some plans for how to deal with it, the more comfortable the will be.  Here are a few areas you might help your student consider as they prepare for their new experiences in the fall.

Academic — Help your student anticipate some of the differences between high school and college.  Help them think about how and how much they plan to study and what they may do if they need help.  Help them think about how to talk to a professor, how to send an appropriate, professional e-mail, or how to work with others on group projects.

Social — Talk frankly with your student about the tough subjects of drinking, drugs and sex.  They are a reality of college life for many students and having some strategies will help.  Help your student think about ideas for making friends.  Give your student some suggestions and strategies for preventing and negotiating potential conflicts with a roommate.

Emotional — Prepare your student for the potential dips in the college experience.  While most of college is a great experience for most students, there will be inevitable times when things do not go well.  These may be minor, or they may feel like major roadblocks.  Help your student think about how they will handle these times — and to know that they will pass eventually.

Financial — Help your student get ready to handle their finances.  Make sure they understand how to budget, how to use a credit card responsibly, how to balance a checkbook, etc.  Keeping track and feeling in control of your expenses is an area that many college students wish they knew more about — and many wish they had learned more from their parents.

Physical — Help your student think about getting enough sleep, eating a reasonable diet, getting exercise, and maintaining healthy habits.  If they take medication, make sure they know how to monitor it and how to have a prescription refilled.

Not every student will need or want to talk to you about all of these areas.  Many students may already be well prepared in many of these areas. However, anything that you can do to help your student feel that they will be in control when they head to college will be important.  Knowing that they have a plan for when things may go wrong will reassure your student that they will be able to cope with whatever comes along.  Hopefully, it will help both you and your college student worry less.

Related Posts:

Soft Skills, Strong Success: Fifteen Skills for College Readiness

College Parents Can Help Freshmen Overcome First Semester Challenges

Five Conversations Parents and College Students Should Have Before the First Year of College

Helping Your College Student Find Support on Campus

Discussing Campus Safety With Your College Student

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3 thoughts on “Helping Your College Student Feel in Control of Their College Experience”

  1. Preparation is so important. I see so many kids entering college with this idealistic viewpoint only to see them encounter frustration, disappointment and complete let-down when things start to get “real.” I don’t mind letting a kid fall and skin his knees once or twice – there are lessons to be learned…but I hate to see kids ruined because they weren’t willing (or capable) of helping themselves.

    I actually offer a workshop for my students and their parents about making the most of college. We talk about expectations, things to be aware of, balancing work and play and providing tips to get off to a good start. I wish more would take advantage of it.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Eric. You are right about the “real” experience – and students who are unprepared are hit the hardest. It’s amazing how many students are willing to be passive victims of whatever comes their way rather than realizing that so much of success comes with how you handle whatever happens. That attitude sometimes takes a long time to develop.

  3. I work with a lot of college freshmen who find that the “real” experience of college is not quite what they thought it would be. They are often unprepared for the highs and lows, the academic challenge, and, most importantly, the need to speak up and advocate for themselves. Whether it is in the classroom, trying to find an answer to a question about their bill, or resolving a roommate conflict, students need to learn how to do things for themselves.

    I love the angle you’re taking with this, Vicki – it’s so important!

    Hopefully, the parents out there reading this are paying very close attention and heeding your advice!


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