Face it, you haven’t known about your child’s inner world for a long time. Your teenager has hidden his or her angst, dreams, troubles and pleasures. But you were always able to keep a watchful eye from a distance, available for advice and guidance at a moment’s notice. You often checked in (sometimes encountering the “got it handled” look) or gave a loving lecture in the hopes that they were actually listening. Occasionally, you were invited into a vulnerable moment and experienced one of those precious, tender times of deep emotional connection with your child.
But now your grad is heading off to college and you’re one more step removed from their life. Will he make friends? Will she get homesick? Will they make smart decisions about drugs and alcohol? Will they call if they get into trouble?
For many college-bound kids, they are not only leaving home, they are leaving their trusted group of friends and extended support group. Circumstances dictate distance from their confidants and trusted companions. Although support is only a text, call, or Facetime away, their world has changed. They are putting energy into creating connections, but haven’t yet developed enough trust to open up to new friends. But being disconnected from their old pals leaves them feeling less comfortable reaching out.
With all of this in mind, Relationup recommends having 4 frank, essential conversations with your son or daughter before they head off to college, to help them develop plans around emergencies or serious situations you may never even hear about.
1. Discuss what to do if they’re caught up in some real trouble or situations they don’t want to tell you about. Who wants to think about their kids making bad choices? But you need to. Create a plan together about what your child would do if they were arrested, ticketed by police, taken advantage of sexually, accused of being sexually inappropriate with someone, had a bad situation with drugs or alcohol, or got into other serious trouble. Also, discuss less serious but important issues such as spending too much time partying, poor grades, losing an expensive phone, damaging their computer, or something else about which they might be too ashamed or hesitant to tell you.
Obviously, you want to believe that your children will call you in these sorts of emergencies, but some may not. So, Relationup’s recommendation is to find a trusted adult friend or family member that can be designated as the “go-to, no questions asked“ contact that your child can reach out to in any emergency. In front of your child, give this person permission to hold your child’s confidence. Stipulate that it can only be breached if the confidant believes in his/her judgment that the mother/father must be told, and only after discussing it first with your kid. This trusted source can only remain trusted if your son or daughter knows that their secrets will be held in confidence.
2. Discuss what to do if they should experience emotional problems. It is very common for kids at college to struggle with emotional problems. Some battled them at a younger age and will need ongoing help managing their symptoms. Others develop issues related to being away, pressure, grades, self-confidence, attractiveness, etc. In 2011/2012, the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors Annual Survey revealed that anxiety is the top presenting concern among college students (41.6%), followed by depression (36.4%) and relationship problems (35.8%).
It is important that you outline the common emotional challenges that young adults have at college and educate your child about the symptoms of various mental health conditions. Create a plan detailing what to do if they experience these symptoms on a chronic basis and don’t let you know. The plan should include going to the Student Health Services at the college (which almost always provides free counseling) or seeking out a community mental health clinic that often provides free or low-cost counseling. You should provide your child with numbers to local mental health clinics―you never know when they might need them.
3. Discuss what to do if they have romantic or friendship problems. A big part of college is the social environment. It is a time when kids are finding their social circles, making their lifelong friends and engaging in more serious romantic relationships. But this can go awry. College students can have trouble making connections, dilemmas with long-distance relationships, problems with roommates and challenges putting themselves out there in the dating scene. On their website, Georgetown University notes that 1/3 of college students have problems with roommates and the same number report having relationship difficulties within a year. The issue impacts academics in 17% of students.
So, who will your child reach out to for guidance with these issues? Most likely they will turn to friends or go at it alone. Create a plan with your child about what they will do if they experience relationship problems. It is unlikely that they will call you or go to student support services. So, explore these issues with them and build a plan that is realistic. This is where your trusted friend can play a vital role and you can introduce your child to an app like Relationup, where mental health professionals provide live relationship advice and guidance via text.
4. Discuss what to do if they have sexual issues or concerns. Uncommitted sexual relations are commonplace for co-eds. According to Dr. Sandra Caron Ph.D., who conducted a 20-year study in 2015 of college students’ sexual behavior, 87% of college students have sexual relations. So, it would behoove you to create a plan about where they would go for help if they wanted birth control, developed an STD, got someone pregnant or became pregnant themselves. Talk to them about all these topics and encourage them to go to student health services at their college and call the trusted friend on their action list.
It is emotional to see your baby grow up and leave the nest. As parents, you have done all that you can to raise them as responsible, caring and productive people. As a young adult, your child will make both good and bad decisions. You can be most helpful to them by discussing the uncomfortable topics and imparting sound advice so they can learn to fly on their own.