Getting ready to send a teen off to college is no easy feat. There’s a flurry of activity as you shop for dorm decor, stock up on school supplies, and work out the matrix of fitting a semester’s worth of stuff in the back of your car. And let’s not forget that through it all, you’re fighting back tears and putting on a brave face as your baby bird leaves the nest, so to speak.
The thing is, you’re not the only one dealing with a million emotions. So is your teen. This is a good time to help your college student mentally prepare to succeed in a world awash in new faces, opportunities, and challenges.
Most teenagers are thrilled with their new freedom and independence, but the experience can sometimes trigger mental health problems, says Denise Johnson, MD, family medicine physician on the medical staff at Methodist Richardson Medical Center.
For example, situational depression can be caused by a life-changing event — like moving away from home for the first time — so helping your child transition smoothly into college life can make a big difference. Dr. Johnson offers parents this advice.
Make a plan to stay in touch
Talk to your student about having a weekly phone call or video chat. “This gives you the opportunity to check in with them to see how they’re doing,” Dr. Johnson says. “Listen to what they’re saying and ask follow-up questions.”
Let them take the lead on establishing protocols for using social media to communicate. For instance, are they okay with your making comments on their social media feeds? In any case, don’t post public comments or advice that might embarrass them.
Boost their self-confidence
Teach your teen to stand their ground should they feel pressured into drinking, experimenting with drugs, having sex, or doing anything unsafe or that makes them uncomfortable. “Remind them that they have the power to say, ‘No’ and to walk away from risky situations,” Dr. Johnson says.
Regular encouraging words, like a letter or text that says, “I love you and I’m proud of you,” can remind students of their value.
Talk about nutrition and sleep
Eating foods rich in vitamins and minerals and getting enough sleep are critical to mental and physical well-being.
“Studies have shown that eating junk food raises the risk of depression,” Dr. Johnson points out. “A diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat proteins can go a long way toward keeping your student healthy.”
College parents are often bombarded with offers to ship “care packages” of candy, chips, and other poor-quality foods to their kids. Send fruit, nuts, and other healthful options instead.
Teach stress management
Stiffer academic demands and new social situations can fluster freshmen, so teach your student some basic stress-reduction skills. “Taking deep, slow breaths through the nose is a proven way to relax,” Dr. Johnson says. “Finding a yoga or fitness class on campus could be a healthy way to release tension, while journaling and drawing can be effective ways to work through emotions and anxiety.”
Point toward campus life
Becoming affiliated with a campus organization provides a place where your child can connect and talk with people who share similar interests, Dr. Johnson says. Teens may not want to divulge problems to their parents for fear they’ll worry or overreact, she points out.
“It can be easier to open up to others when you have things in common, and your teen is likely to find those connections in campus groups,” she says.
Last, keep in mind that just because your son or daughter is leaving home doesn’t mean they don’t need you. You can find that balance of giving your child the room to spread their wings and enjoy their independence while also being the parent they need.
BE SURE YOUR TEEN IS READY FOR COLLEGE
Find a primary care provider to ensure vaccines are current and help your child establish healthy habits.