Parents everywhere have just dropped their students off at college for the first time. It’s an emotional time. Excitement is high, anxiety is high, and for many, there are mixed emotions about their student leaving home. As parents return home and try to settle into the new normal of not having their child at home, their child is busy making the transition to their new world away from home. An essential part of that transition is making new friends.
For many students, much of their anxiety heading off to college has to do with whether or not they will find friends and “fit in.” Friends can make all of the difference. Most colleges recognize this need and work hard to plan programming during the first few weeks of the semester to bring students together and encourage community building. They know that students with a strong friend network are generally happier, do better, and are more likely to remain in school.
The friends who come along
Many students already have friends on campus even before they arrive.
- Some students attended a summer orientation session and met other new students then.
- Some students head to college with others from their high school. This can provide great security as students can count on knowing someone else when they arrive. However, the obvious danger is that students with built in friends from home will make less effort to reach out to get to know others.
- Most schools now have Facebook pages and/or Twitter or Pinterest pages for entering students. Many students have spent the summer months chatting online with other new students, getting to know one another, sharing stories, interests, plans.
First friends – there when we need them
Students who do not have built-in friendships in place when they arrive on campus will find that they have many opportunities to meet other students right away. In fact, early friends help students make the transition to college. What do we know about these early friendships?
- Friends of convenience. Early friendships in college are often based on chance or first encounters: roommates, residents on the same hall or in the same dorm, students from an orientation group, students in the same classes or on the same team.
- Lots of friends. If you observe a college campus in the first few weeks, there is often a fairly accurate way to identify the first-year students. They are the ones in packs, traveling everywhere in groups. Students head to meals, activities and classes in groups of 4, 5, or more. Upper class students, on the other hand, are more likely to be with one or two close friends.
- Early friendships often don’t last. These early friendships, made quickly and often based on proximity and convenience, often don’t last. As students settle in, they move on to more enduring friendships.
Is there a problem?
The cycle of friendships makes sense. Students quickly make friends with those around them and they find security in larger groups. Eventually, as students become more secure and get to know one another better, newer, deeper friendships begin to develop.
But many students don’t understand the cycle and are unprepared when early friendships seem to dissolve. Students may be unhappy because they feel as though they don’t have any “real” friends at school. This may be the moment when you get that unhappy phone call from your student regretting their choice, feeling as though no one likes them, and wanting to come home or choose another school. As parents, we can easily panic.
- Take a breath . . . and suggest that your student do the same thing.
- Remind your student that this is a natural part of the cycle. Initial friends are great for those first days or weeks. Finding new friends may take some time because true friendships grow slowly.
- Help your student understand that there are different kinds of friends. It’s no one’s fault if early friends aren’t as close. Friendships drift. Your student didn’t make poor choices. Not all initial friendships will develop into deeper ones.
- Help your student understand that a little bit of loneliness at times is OK. Learning to be alone at times is an important adult skill.
- Remind your student that they may be comparing their current new and developing friendships to their (perhaps somewhat idealized) memory of friends at home – friendships that took years to develop.
- Share some thoughts with your student about your own friends. How did you meet them? Get to know them better? How do you feel about your friendships in general?
- Remember that this is your student’s problem to solve, not yours. You can offer a sympathetic ear, some reassurance, and some advice, but then your student will need to take it from there.
But how can you help?
Your student knows how to make friends. They’ve done it before. But at the moment, your student isn’t thinking clearly, so you may need to offer some reminders. We often tell our children to “choose your friends wisely,” but it’s not always clear how to do that. Here are some things for your student to consider.
- Your roommate doesn’t need to be your best friend. Your roommate needs to be someone with a lifestyle that is compatible with yours, but it’s fine if your interests and lives go separate directions.
- You need to take charge of the process of making friends. Good friendships don’t just happen. Take control. Take a risk. Make an effort. The best way to find a good friend is to be one.
- Think about what matters to you. What do you value? Look around for people who seem to find the same things important.
- Get active. Get involved. Join some clubs or attend events because they interest you. It’s likely that other people who attend the same activities will have similar interests and want to do similar things. Make an effort to get to know them.
- Look for people with whom you can be honest, with whom you feel that you can be yourself.
- Think about the kind of person you want to be, the goals that you have. Find some people like that.
- Notice whether the other person seems to be making an effort as well. Good friendships are two-way.
- Some people seem to lift us up and others drag us down. Look for people who lift you up, make you feel good about yourself, support your efforts and interests, help you feel in control, encourage your success, and make you feel safe.
Friends move us forward
Not all friends serve the same purpose in our lives. Tricia Downing, para-Olympic athlete and author of the book Cycle of Hope, recently told a group of college freshmen to look for four kinds of people in their lives. Downing suggested that students find mentors, coaches, cheerleaders, and challengers. We think this is great advice. Some friends will guide us through our lives (mentors), some will keep us on track (coaches), some will make us feel good (cheeerleaders), and others will spur us on to become better people (challengers). Encourage your student to build different kinds of friendships.
Help your student think about how friends fit into their life. Reassure your student that friendships will, indeed, develop and then change, although this may take time. Thinking about who we are and what we value is part of choosing friends, and choosing our friends is part of building our identity.
If your student works at being the best friend they can be, they will surely choose friends wisely.