Starting College Is A Social And Emotional Transition For Your Young Adult
When your young adult goes to college, parents are aware that the academic challenges will increase. But what we don’t often talk to our kids about–and what frankly can be hard to discuss–is that there is a big transition for young adults in college both socially and emotionally. Your college student has to navigate brand new friendships, dating, sex, drugs and alcohol, and in some cases, their gender and sexual identities. While these things were present before, high school is usually packed with more structured activities, and more face time and organization from you as a parent.
The social stakes are high as college freshmen dive into a bigger, more adult pool by themselves. This can feel freeing and exciting, but it can also be nerve-wracking, isolating and/or overwhelming for them. And often, because you know your kid well, you may be able to catch their anxiety about this transition first.
Transitional Anxiety Is Normal For Freshman, But Can Become Overwhelming
We all have anxiety during any significant life transition. In college, everything is new–freshman may be in a new town, and navigating a social system with little to no family in a new location. Some young adults are sophisticated post-high school with navigating dating and sex, and drugs and alcohol, while others aren’t. This freedom that may or may not be wanted can cause a lot of anxiety.
For your freshman, some level of this transitional anxiety is normal because of the newness of college. In a sense, both freshmen and parents have to accept that these transitions may make them feel anxious, nervous or socially awkward, and that’s okay. But sometimes, transitional anxiety can become overwhelming. They may avoid social functions, isolate themselves, or escape to home, their room, or outside of school to avoid anxiety.
It’s important to note that while concerned for a freshman’s transition, parents are also going through a big transition of their own as their kid moves out of the house. With these changes, parents have to navigate a new chapter in their relationship and discover different ways to support their young adult when not at home.
How Can You Help Your Kid With Transitional Anxiety? Encourage Them To Talk About It Whether With You Or Someone Else
Though transitional anxiety can make freshmen want to isolate, what often helps is the opposite: talking about the anxiety. Freshmen, more than anyone in college, need a release valve–someone to whom they can lay out their new day-to-day, including who they like, who they’re excited about, what they’re really scared of, what has been confusing about a date, professor, peer, etc. Sometimes just saying, “Hey, I feel anxious all the time. I’ve been up all night. I need to numb with food/alcohol/pot/vaping” can be helpful. We actually feel slightly less anxious when naming our feelings so we aren’t alone with it.
Parents can be this release valve for their young adult by listening without nagging, and asking curious questions that allow them to open up about what they’re feeling. Sometimes, though, parents may need to realize their kid needs another ear that isn’t Mom or Dad, and maybe someone who can meet them in-person to connect. In this case, it’s important to encourage them to reach out to a friend from high school, family member, or a close friend that’s nearby.
A Therapist Can Also Be Helpful Because They’re Not Going Through This College Transition
A therapist can also be particularly helpful in talking to a young adult about their anxiety because he or she isn’t going through this college transition as well. Parents are transitioning from having their kid leave home, and high school friends are probably also dealing with their own transitional anxiety. In therapy, a freshman is able to sort out their new thoughts and feelings about college face-to-face with someone who is not activated by the anxiety or in the transition.
A therapist can understand that transitional anxiety is both normal and overwhelming, and honor both without making college students feel the need to take care of them like a friend or relative. For example, they can tell a therapist what their dorm living situation is actually like without bright-siding or trying to make it sound more positive for Mom or Dad. Therapists can allow for the good, the bad, and in-between to be heard.
Encourage Them To Create Community Both On And Off Campus
Another way to help your college student connect with people on the ground is to encourage them to create a community in their new city, both on and off campus. Whether a meditation group, intramural sport, a caucus for political organizing, robotics club, a play, or orchestra, joining or creating a community can help significantly by being a locator of lots of people doing mainly the same thing week to week. A community, like families, old teams or high school friends, has a shared value system.
There is also structure and ritual that community provides–same time, same place, activities that are known, etc. A freshman can do it over a small period of time each week (similar to therapy), where they get to talk with people in a group, know many people, and have people get to know them. It’s portioned and self-soothing for anxiety to be seen, known, and heard to transition into a feeling of place in a new life in college.