Next month many thousands of students will be heading off for college to become part of the Freshman class. These seventeen and eighteen-year old youth will be leaving known environs of home, community, and friends. They are leaving their tribe and coming together in a geographic location where there are many unknown tribes with unfamiliar cultures.
These cultures are the culture of the west, east, north, south, and the varied international cultures. The American culture is not one culture.
College is often thought of as a right of passage. It is certainly an accomplishment and often it will be life-changing. College is an opportunity for learning, socializing, and social learning. It is fun and it is not always safe.
The unsafe part of college is the lack of adult supervision and the unleashing of instability in a large social context. Students from many different places with many beliefs and wildly arranged concepts about living and life will come to inhabit the same place.
We have heard about the high rates of college suicide and the high rates of campus sexual assaults. These are real. Add to this drinking, drug use, and other staples of modern college life. I have often thought that if parents really knew what went on at college they would never pay for the experience for their child. Yes, lots of learning will take place with all these perils, however, many young people will not survive.
I have a PhD and obviously I advocate for the college experience. Early on I made decisions about how to stay safe and often sacrificed friends in the name of what was moral or right. At seventeen when I entered college I was prepared to take care of myself. My young clients voice feeling unprepared for the experience.
Most of my college bound clients are anxious, fearful, sometimes depressed, and overall filled with dread at going away to college. They aren’t sure why they are doing it or they know why they wish there was a simpler way. Some will go to community college and keep the bridge to the familiar open and available. Others will crisscross the country and encounter things they do not and cannot understand without assistance.
I encourage parents to understand that this journey is frightening and not without potential perils. Speak frankly to your children about what may be ahead. They may well find that they are not prepared. There will be moral and ethical decisions to be made for self and in relation to others. There will be choices. There will be risks. It is important to stay tethered a bit longer to the familiar voices of family and community of origin. College bound youth are not supposed to know how to do college. They are not supposed to know how to make decisions about difficult things. Even if you raised your child well it will not guarantee they will be OK. One of the biggest myths is that good parenting equals longer survival.
Prepare an emotional first aid kit for your college bound child. It contains things like:
Photos of the family
A photo of your child as a young child
A favorite book you shared
A few of mom’s great, yet simple recipes
A few of dad’s pointers on bullies and thugs
A DVD about coming of age
A drawing done by a younger sibling
A special gift from an older sibling
Phone numbers of every living relative and neighbors from home
A drawing or gift your child made you when they were little.
Now put it all in a box no larger than a shoe box. Tie a string around it. Give it to your child unceremoniously.
Take care and be well,
Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, PhD
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Last reviewed: 9 Jul 2013