When we send our kids off to college it is all too easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of graduation, dorm shopping, packing and moving.
They try to squeeze in every last second with their friends and we try to squeeze in every last second with them. But so much of parenthood is about looking forward and preparing our teens for what’s to come, not for doing their own laundry and signing up for classes, but for the real challenges ahead. The summer before going to college is a time to talk, really truly talk, about some of the most important things in life.
What to Talk to Your Teen About Before They Go to College
- Talk to them about the magnitude of going to college: While going to college may well have been expected of them, that doesn’t diminish the magnitude of this step. This is the talk where we remind them of their true good fortune to be offered this unparalleled opportunity, that in any other time and place, they would likely be going to work and not have these years to learn and discover. Now is the moment to discuss the bounty a college campus has to offer with its speakers, concerts, athletics and courses. There is truly no place else like it and they need to be reminded that it would be a big misstep to spend four years playing video games, getting drunk and shopping online.
- Talk about sexual conduct and real relationships: Talk about how misconduct happens, why it happens and what to do if it happens. Talk about doing the right thing, being a real friend in need, and the emotional, physical and legal consequences of bad behavior. Talk about consent as needing to be not just a nod of the head from a sexual partner but their abiding enthusiasm. Talk to them about what real relationships are based upon. Disabuse them of the notion that all college students are part of the “hook up culture” and explain how overblown this is. This conversation needs to be serious, lengthy and explicit. It is a conversation that will cover some very uncomfortable ground and require more than one conversation.
- Talk about mental health: We need to tell our teens about any risks in our families, the skeletons that may still lurk in closets. They are going to college and need to know warning signs so that they recognize them. College is a time of stress, one of my kids described the emotional ride as “high highs and low lows.” They need to know when and how to reach out for help for themselves or a friend. Give them the facts that one in three freshmen suffer in some way with mental health challenges. They are not alone.
- Ask them to envision graduating: At 18 it may be hard to see themselves as 22 but ask them anyway. College is over, graduation is at hand, what will they want to have accomplished? What will they regret having missed? This thinking exercise might help guide some of their time in college.
- Talk about caring for others: Bad things will happen in college. Hopefully, the unfortunate events will confine themselves to lost laptops, missed classes and some evenings of being overserved. But whether the bad news is big or small, college is where we learn to be there for our friends. Before college, families were at hand to help out. From college onward close friends almost become like family. This is the time to tell your kids the importance of taking care of others, of being there when they are needed, and of being the kind of friend they hope to have.
- Tell them your expectations: College is life beginning anew and with it there may be new expectations. Don’t wait until you have a misunderstanding, until you are feeling let down and they are feeling that they have messed up. Among other things, I expected my kids to join up and get involved. Watching Netflix all afternoon did not fit, for me, with paying their tuition. Did I always get what I expected? No. But when the conflict came they couldn’t say they had not seen it coming. If you have expectations around their grades or working during the school year or any other matter, chat this through before they go.
- Talk about sleep: Before my kids were going to college I nagged them to get into bed every night. It was perhaps an inelegant solution, but my high schoolers got 8+ hours of sleep a night. As this was not a long-term strategy, it was important that as they went off I told them about the wonders of sleep and how our brains, bodies and moods suffer without it. I can report that they all ignored me and learned their lessons, the hard way…but at least when things started to fall apart, they knew why. Sleep is the elixir of the gods, alleviating so many ills, and they cannot hear that too many times.
Write them a letter and share your pride.
Our kids know we are proud of them. They live bathed in our love. But no one ever tired of hearing how valued they are. I failed to write my kids the kind of letter they would want to save forever, making do with a series of texts that have long since been deleted. This is the moment to pour your heart out, to share the love you have felt since you wrapped up your gorgeous baby and brought her home from the hospital. This is the moment to tell her that you have loved her more than you ever believed possible and are bursting with pride as you watch her go.