Three Things Your College-Bound Senior Needs to Hear from You

College applications are behind you. Your senior has decided which university to attend in the fall. It’s time to celebrate!

And now is also a great time to take inventory of your relationship with your high-school senior. There’s been a lot of preparation for this moment in your child’s life and you’ve both put a significant amount of heavy lifting into reaching this point.

The upcoming chapter is focused on so many major leaps that, quite honestly, it’s easy to forget about some of the little things we might want to talk about with our kids. These more intimate conversations can be just as essential for our seniors, and may even be critical to reassuring them in their next steps.

Some important things to say to your high schooler before they leave home. (Photo credit Lisa Chilcote Bacco)

The first few months of college are filled with existential questions

The first several months away at college are filled with big, life-forming inquiries such as, “What will you major in, and what profession will this lead to?” or, “Who, exactly, do you want to be – five years from now?”

High school teachers, counselors, and college admissions officers have been preparing students to answer these and other self-defining questions for some time now. A good measure of independence is required in these considerations, and, ideally, students should meet these challenges on their own.

Yet when I reflect on the first-year college experience of students in my classrooms, I also see that our kids still very much crave the approval and support of their parents. These new waters are somewhat murky to navigate, and parental support in key areas makes a huge difference in confidence levels. There’s plenty of familial affirmation that they still need and want, even if they are in the midst of their “I can’t wait to get out of here” rebellion. 

So, what should parents say to their kids now, while they have the chance?

Three important things to say to your senior

1. It’s okay to change course 

The mental weight of that first year is significant and some students feel locked into choices they made before attending school. Help unburden them by letting them know it’s normal, and even healthy, to switch gears to get to a better place. First-year aspirations should include contingencies with acceptable alternatives tied to them.

At least one-third of students change their majors, sometimes multiple times, before settling on an academic or career path. It’s also common to transfer schools, with a fair percentage of those moving out of state returning home after the first semester or year. In this way, it’s best to see our young college students as developing adults rather than grown-ups who must follow through on every commitment. One way to do this is to help them categorize and prioritize their goals for their first year, instead of insisting that they commit to a predefined master plan.

Start with achievable things like making friends, getting a good grade in a difficult subject, learning something new, or finding a mentor on campus. As long as they are meeting the basic intent of these smaller goals, the details of where or how this occurs can be negotiable.

2. You respect their choices 

Even when you may not agree with them. College is a time when students try on many different hats, especially during freshman year. This might include changes to their diet, dress, alterations in persona, personal tastes, or social preferences.

Your meat-loving teenager might suddenly become a dedicated vegan, or your dress-for-success senior might show up in cut-offs and flip-flops at Thanksgiving, among other notable (or even less desirable) things! 

Fully expect politics and religious beliefs to be two areas of growth, movement, or outright challenge. While this can look like instability at the outset, lifespan theorists describe this period as critical, with research showing a huge shift in thinking structures between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five.

The theory of emerging adulthood provides a narrative for these years, which are characterized by identity exploration encouraged by new environments that help students explore and integrate new cognitive capacities. Offering your child a bit of grace and patience as they investigate novel ideas, provided these are not self-destructive, is a key part of this time frame for young adults. The less they fear your judgment, the more they will share themselves with you.

3. Their mental health is important to you

Social changes are harder for teens today, particularly in the aftermath of COVID-19. Now, more than ever, college instructors see that students are decidedly more stressed than previous cohorts. At the national level, the CDC has issued a warning that our country is in the midst of a loneliness crisis.

Prolonged feelings of depression and isolation can have lasting physical effects on health, some even as dangerous as those associated with smoking or excessive drinking. It’s imperative for young people that parents invest in their well-being, creating a culture of acceptance by being receptive to emotional concerns.

To achieve this, it might mean putting aside the parental narrative you have about your child to practice active listening. This approach can be a really powerful tool to use in connecting with your teen that can open the door to ongoing dialogue. 

The leap from high school to college is filled with a myriad of choices, a wonderful sense of independence, and naturally, some amount of uncertainty. The good news is that there are many ways parents can bolster their students in this transition, all while shifting from center-stage parenting to supportively cheering from the sidelines.

Together, families can work towards this new chapter in their lives as older teens begin to experience and embrace all the privileges that come with adulthood. And though it may feel as if one door in the relationship is closing, a new one is most certainly opening. The mutual respect that blossoms during this time will set a solid foundation in your relationship for years to come.

More Great Reading:

High School Senior Year: Wishing For a Little More Time

About Lisa ChilcoteBacco

BioLisa Chilcote Bacco has been an applied social scientist and educator for 23 years in the field of Medical Sociology. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts, a Master’s Degree in Clinical Sociology, and post-graduate certification in Sociology of Medicine and Aging from the University of Northern Colorado and Fort Hays State University, respectively. She has taught for Metropolitan State University of Denver, the University of New Mexico, and Southern New Hampshire University. Her recent professional experience has been working primarily with students in the medical field, exploring the impact of social issues on health outcomes.

Read more posts by Lisa

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