8 Steps to a Smooth College Transition for You and Your Teen
I sat in the passenger seat of our SUV in the parking garage, hot and exhausted. Sweat from the 112-degree Phoenix summer sun ran down my spine while my eyes stayed glued to the back of my six-foot-tall baby boy walking towards the garage stairs.
Time stopped as I watched him pause on the top step. 18 years flew by so quickly. Didn’t we just bring him home from the hospital on a snowy March afternoon? He turned to wave, shooting us a quick smile, then disappearing down the staircase into a new life, a new adventure, a new chapter of his life. But where did that leave me?
Some moms might have felt the sting of him walking away. Away from our family dynamic. Away from the mother-son bond we’ve shared, and if I’m honest, have fought hard at times to maintain. Away from his need for me.
College Is a New Chapter for Parents, Too
But as my husband put the vehicle into reverse and we made our own descent from the garage, I too was entering into a new chapter of life, of motherhood. No tears fell. Perhaps because I’d been preparing for this day, really preparing for it, for the last year. Perhaps because over the past several months, I’d shed so many tears I wasn’t sure I had any left. But I believe it was because as I watched our son walk onto his college campus, his new home, I was no longer sad for me, but excited for him.
But it didn’t start this way…
As moms, we spend our days and nights pouring into, worrying over, praying for and deeply loving our kids. We build bonds. Have arguments. Make memories. Hold broken hearts. Calm fears. We taxi to playdates and practices. Prepare dinners. Plan birthday parties. Help with projects. Finish projects after they’ve fallen asleep. Make last minute runs to Walmart and Target for the “thing” they forgot they needed today. Bake cupcakes. Pack lunches. Give driving lessons. Scout colleges. Visit campuses. Assist with applications. Pack boxes. Drive U-Hauls. Move into dorms. We do all the things…except prepare our hearts for the day they spread their wings.
Our heads know the day is coming, but our hearts often won’t allow us the space to prepare for it. Instead, we watch them walk into their future and feel as though they are walking away from us. And friend, in a way they are…and that’s ok. It’s good even. No one said it was easy. But there are steps you can take to make the transition smooth for both you and your teen.
8 Steps For a Smooth College Transition—For You and Your Kids
1. Acknowledge Your Grief.
One of the best pieces of advice I received came from a dear friend. Her kids are a few years older than mine and she’d already experienced this transition…twice (Side note: having friends whose kids are older and younger than your own is so important. It gives you someone to learn from and pour into.)
Over coffee she warned me that grief would come. Grief seemed like such a strong word to me. Grief is what you experience when a loved one passes away; not when your child goes to college. But she was so right! I felt the first tidal waves at the beginning of our son’s junior year of high school. It surprised me. I began seeing every “last” we were about to experience: his last first day of school, his last school picture, his last homecoming, his last school events, his last prom, his last…everything.
While I wasn’t prepared for the waves of emotions, my friend was right. It was grief, and it needed to be acknowledged. Mom, it’s totally natural to feel overwhelmed and sad during this transition. Don’t hide or ignore your feelings. But don’t necessarily share all of them with your teen either. We will discuss this later. Having an emotional support system is a must during this transitional season. A couple possibilities are other moms who have been through this uncharted territory or discuss this transition with a counselor.
2. Support Your Teen.
While you are navigating your own sea of emotions, so is your teen. Some are excited for the turn of the page while others are consumed with fear and anxiety over the unknown. This is why it’s so important for you to have a separate support system of your own. Your teen needs you to be engaged and able to lead them through this transition. They need you to be the calm in their storm; and, we can’t do that if we’re tossed about in our emotional hurricane.
Part of supporting them will include: listening, preparing, and reminding them. Listen as they share their own emotional shifts, from being excited for a new adventure to being scared to leave home, from being sad to leave their friends to being anxious for all of the unknowns. Prepare both emotionally and physically.
Don’t wait until the last minute to gather what they need. Remind, but don’t nag. Soon they will be on their own. You won’t be there to wake them up, fix their meals, do their laundry, or check their grades. Over their junior and senior years, begin to create expectations that will set them up for a smooth transition into adult life when you’re not around.
It may feel easier to just avoid the inevitable and pretend this isn’t happening, but that mindset rarely proves helpful. Instead, make a list, a time sheet, so you know what needs to be done by specific dates. Make a packing list, including even the tiniest details like bandaids and zip lock bags. Yes, they can buy those things on their own, but it’s nice for them to have a starter pack of everything they’ll need.
Don’t wait to begin purchasing and packing until the week before they leave. That only leads to unnecessary stress in an already highly emotional season. Decorating a dorm room, renting a truck, making travel reservations all adds up quickly. Stretching those expenses out over several months makes it much more manageable and fun!
4. Make Memories.
You only get this season once per child. Why not make the best of it!
Use the time leading up to move-in weekend to make some great family memories. Take a vacation together because it might not be the same after they go away. Going forward, they might have to work, take classes, study abroad, or want to travel with friends. Have fun preparing and packing. Take shopping trips together for dorm decor and necessities. Cook meals together and have recipes ready so they will be able to have a taste of home with them whenever they get homesick.
5. Be Honest.
This transition isn’t easy. So don’t pretend it’s all unicorns and rainbows. Be discerningly honest with your teen. If you want them to be honest and vulnerable with you, you need to be willing to do the same. It’s ok to let them see you cry at times. Even the toughest teen wants to know they will be missed and are still loved.
Create a safe space where each member of your family can talk about how they’re feeling. It’s important to acknowledge everyone’s emotions and understand that for some family members, those feelings won’t come until after your teen has moved.
For example, although my two kids are six years apart and never seemed very close, our youngest had a hard time when her brother left for college. She missed him more than she realized and felt bad they hadn’t spent as much time together. Now they’re intentional about spending time together when he’s home. It’s ok to feel sad; it’s not ok to stay sad.
6. Don’t Guilt Trip.
While honesty is very important, it’s equally important not to emotionally manipulate or guilt trip your teen. When we make the transition about what we as moms are losing, feeling, and fearing we make the transition about us rather than our teens. This is their time. Their season. Their adventure. Be very cautious about comments or phrases that will lead your teen to feel like they should change their plans to make you happy or because they know how hard this is for you.
In the same regard, once they’re on campus, don’t call all the time or be offended when they don’t call you. You’re not forgotten. They still love and need you. It just looks different and that’s ok. They need their space and permission to grow and learn on their own.
One suggestion: Have a set day or time for a short catch-up conversation. As moms, it’s so easy to feel tossed to the side once they leave. But remember, you are their mom. They still love you and no one will take your place. Your role is shifting; it’s not ending and that’s ok.
7. Don’t Let Them Give Up Too Quickly.
The day after we dropped our son off and drove the five hours back home, I got a call. As he sat in his lonely dorm room assembling a chair, he cried, convinced he’d made the biggest mistake. He wanted to come home.
In that moment, I had to make one of the hardest decisions to say, “no.” I knew he was homesick. I hoped it would get better.
And it did. Over the next few days, he met other students, made friends, started classes and settled into his new routine. It would have been so easy to come to his rescue. But what would that teach him?
On the other hand, not every college is for every kid. I suggest giving it a quarter/semester. If your child is still struggling, then it’s time to have a conversation. But don’t let them pass up what might be the best thing because it’s hard at times.
8. Be Their Safe Place.
We all long for a safe place to land, to just be ourselves. One of the best gifts you can give your teen is to be their safe place. When they want to open up about their campus life and relationships, listen and be discerning with your comments and opinions. You are becoming more of a confidant than a rescue ranger.
Give wise counsel when asked, but don’t interject in all circumstances. The same friend who told me about grief also gave me a great book to read. Doing Life with Your Adult Children: Keep Your Mouth Shut and the Welcome Mat Out by Jim Burns was full of so much wisdom in this area.
You want them to feel safe with you and you want them to want to come home. So make it peaceful and enjoyable. Because if we’re completely honest, they don’t have to come home. They can travel, hang out with friends, take extra classes, and work. And when they choose those things, let them know while you will miss them, you understand.
The summer between our son’s freshman and sophomore years, he chose to stay in Phoenix to work. He found a room to rent with some friends so he could keep a good job he’d had all school year. Although we would have loved to have him home with us for the summer, it was a smart decision.
This year, he came home for the summer. He pulled into the driveway at 10 p.m., exhausted after finals and move-out week. He spent his first week home, sleeping in and playing video games. He needed time to just relax without any responsibilities. He needed a vacation and home was his safe place to do that.
Mommas, we have a choice. While we may not be able to stop our babies from growing up, we can embrace the journey. We can prepare for it so it doesn’t catch us off guard. And we can even celebrate it. Because when we choose to be excited with our teens, we can become excited for them as they head off into the fantastic possibilities of their futures.
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If you’re overwhelmed with the feeling that everything is changing, we encourage you to listen to this podcast episode: Your World Just Turned Upside Down—What Now? with Marlys Johnson Lawry – 197