Written by Stephanie Bertholdo Illustration by Beth Thayer
Driving a car, first dates and going off to college are milestones in life that teens relish. But of them all, the college send-off probably marks the most dramatic shift in the relationship between parent and child.
With every baby step toward adulthood, parents can’t help but fret. Will my gregarious son be safe behind the wheel, or will his overconfidence push him to speed? Can my sensitive daughter emotionally weather a broken heart, or will she crumble when she suffers that inevitable first-love loss?
But going off to college is altogether different than learning how to drive or navigating the dating scene. Parents cannot readily step in and fix a problem while their sons or daughters are away at school.
When the metaphoric cord is severed at the dorm room door, parents will no longer have the luxury of knowing the company their son keeps, or whether or not their daughter is surviving on junk food and three hours of sleep per night.
Let’s face it, at the age of 18 your child, your baby, is an adult—kind of. Legally he or she can vote, go to war and sign contracts. Drinking booze is still a legal no-no, but has anybody heard of a college where this law is routinely enforced?
Neuroscience tells us that the teen brain is not fully baked until the age of 25 or so. Your child may be completely prepared to tackle the academic rigors of college, but can he or she balance the emotional challenges that come with the territory?
Parents cross their fingers and hope that they have given their sons and daughters the roots of wisdom during their first 18 years at home, experience that will help them withstand adversity and allow them to advocate for themselves with teachers, friends and foes.
These roots provide the foundation for the emotional grit—or wings—necessary for teens to make the grade in college and withstand the vicissitudes of life.
Judy Wiener, an Agoura Hills family therapist and clinical social worker, has helped many teens and families prepare for transitions, including the move from home to college.
Almost half of the college students starting school in 2006 failed to graduate within six years, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
How does one know if a child is ready to tackle college and the emotional booby traps inherent to the higher education experience? Wiener says that while each child matures at a different rate, most teens provide clues in high school as to whether or not they are ready to move out of the house and into the dorm.
First, it’s normal for some kids to rebel against their parents toward the end of high school, says Weiner. Though the rebellion can create a chasm between parent and child, some of the push-pull home drama is healthy.
“Kids want to be self-sufficient,” Wiener says. Teens, she says, who have established some distance from their parents at this stage might actually be better prepared to leave home for college.
Wiener has witnessed parents helping their child far too much. She says if a teen has been accepted into college based on his own merit, he is academically prepared, but if mom has assisted her child with homework and projects throughout high school, she may want to take a step back and reconsider whether her child is truly ready for the challenge on his own.
College life provides an education above and beyond what is learned in classes.
“It’s important for students to have developed skills to live independently,” Wiener says. “They need emotional, social and life skills.”
Can they do their own laundry? If not, they’d better learn while living at home. Can your child manage money, write a check and use an ATM? If not, they may not be able to handle routine errands at college or even register for classes on their own.
Wiener suggests getting a teen ready for an independent life while they’re still under the same roof as mom and pop.
She recommends letting kids experience what it’s like to be away from home before moving to college. Camp or other activities that require that the child be on their own for at least a day or two is one early step.
Shari Hill, a Lake Sherwood resident and past president of the international organization SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted), agrees that academic readiness should not be the deciding factor when determining if a child should head off to a four-year university right out of high school.
“Kids who aren’t ready are distractible, disruptive,” Hill says. “Parents have to prepare their children in so many ways.”
Hill says parents need to take a look at the company their children keep in high school. If junior is pulling A grades, but is hanging out with kids who have routinely gotten in trouble for risky behavior, there’s a good chance the child will seek out the same kinds of friends at college.
Amanda Thompson (name changed for privacy) excelled in school. Amanda earned A’s in Newbury Park High School’s International Baccalaureate program, yet she struggled with social and emotional issues during most of her four years of public school.
Her stellar grades landed her an acceptance at her dream school—UC Berkeley—but after some soul-searching, Amanda decided that she wasn’t quite ready to attend a big university. Instead, she attended Moorpark College for two years and transferred to UC Santa Barbara after she realized that the beach scene was more her style than the Bay Area’s gritty city.
“There’s no stigma in attending a two-year college first,” Hill says. “You put on your resume where you graduate from.”
Wiener says that students generally know whether they are ready to make the leap and go away to school. But peer pressure can add to the agony of making that decision. If your child’s friends are hitting the road for a college far from home—and your kid has the grades to make the cut—the decision to postpone the four-year college route requires insight from parents and students.
“Everybody faces challenges,” Wiener says. “We grow from challenges. The more we are able to successfully face challenges, the more confidence we gain.”
But being ready also means being able to recognize when they need help, she says. “Students must be able to seek it out . . .
Going off to college doesn’t mean that they have to do everything on their own.”
The good news is that if a child has developed the roots of trust and self-reliance in childhood, they are more than likely prepared to fly out of the nest and into
a college dorm. If not immediately, then soon enough.