By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.
When Your Child Has Left for College
Your child has left for college. You probably helped them pick out the extra-long sheets, hampers, and various items to make their dorm room comfortable. You paid their bill or helped them with the financial aid application. You posted Facebook pictures of them going off or arriving at college. This transition is a huge rite of passage for American families – it marks an almost-there moment of parenting, where you can feel good about having helped your child get this far.
If your child has mental health challenges, your excitement and pride is likely to be mixed with even more than the usual amount of nervousness. It is hard to know that your child is now legally an adult, and you can’t make them go to therapy, take their meds, or use the tutorial center. However, there are a few things you can do to lay the groundwork for preventing and dealing with possible problems.
If your child has been in therapy at home, try to get them a counselor at school as well, or see if their therapist can do phone or tele-health (video call) sessions. If regular therapy is not necessary (based on your, your child’s, and your clinician’s opinion,) see if your student could still do a few check-in sessions on their first vacation home. Also, counseling and learning disabilities centers generally offer workshops and groups open to all students that may feel like less of a commitment to your busy student, but still be helpful.
Look up various services at your child’s school and write down the numbers, so that should your son or daughter call or text about an issue, you can immediately tell them about counseling or tutorial services and give them the number. When a response is quick and includes necessary contact information, people are more likely to follow up on it.
If you are concerned about your son or daughter, you can generally call someone at the school to express that worry and have a resident advisor or someone else check in on them. While staff at school may not always be able to speak to you about your child without explicit consent from them, you are not violating confidentiality yourself by talking to staff. (Of course, if you are worried about your child’s immediate safety, contact the campus or local police.)
In difficult situations that may necessitate actions such switching classes or rooms or asking for a leave of absence, ask your child if they have any ideas on next steps before offering your own solution. Help your child advocate for themselves by discussing whom they should contact and rehearsing what they might say. In other words, don’t jump in immediately to fight their battles, but instead help them fight their own.
When you talk with child about their new environment, try not to make judgements about what they say— rather, respond with something neutral and encouraging, like “That’s so interesting,” “You’re meeting people of all kinds,” “Let me know how it pans out.” They are more likely to turn to you with any difficulty or concern if they trust that you’ll be interested and neutral, rather than anxious or angry. This doesn’t mean condoning behaviors that are self- destructive; it does mean focusing on possible solutions rather than on your own reaction. Remember, this should be about them, not you!
By the same token, show them that you’re fine without them. A client who was a high school teacher and participated in programs abroad, noted that the least happy students were those whose parents called a lot, frequently asked if the student was ok and made a to-do about how much they missed them. Telling someone you miss them, while intended as a way of saying you love them, can unintentionally create guilt (“I shouldn’t be here and I definitely shouldn’t be having a good time, because they’re lonely and miss me so much.”) The best message you can give your child is that you love them, that you assume they can figure things out (with your help if needed,) and that you are doing just fine without them.
Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist. Look for her monthly blog post about child & adolescent therapy on www.commpsych.com.
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