Ask the Experts: Transition for College Kiddo with High Anxiety

This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on June 10, 2021, by Marylena Chaisson, LCPC, Case Management Clinical Supervisor, Health Affiliates Maine. 

Question: My son is a senior and will be going out of state for college next year. He has fairly high anxiety and lacks executive functioning skills. I am feeling very anxious about him being far from home. How do we both prepare for this big change?

Answer: Big changes ahead! Let me tell you that you’re already doing great just by thinking about these challenges ahead of time and acknowledging there might be a couple of bumps here and there for both of you, so first off, please give yourself a pat on the back for being a caring and nurturing parent! Changes like this can be stressful for the whole family. Please remember to take care of yourself and attend to your own anxiety and stress over this change by seeking the support of a counselor, even if just for a few short-term, solution-focused sessions. 

Here are some specific thoughts about your son and his transition to college life:

  • I would encourage him (maybe with a little support from you) to reach out to the college’s student counseling staff right away–even this summer. This could be something you can support him with. Counseling staff at college are well-versed in the array of transitional struggles that frequently occur with this population of young adults and can better support new college students if they know ahead of time what challenges might surface. I will be surprised if the college does not have a counseling option for their students. If they don’t, reaching out to the Dean for guidance towards locally available counselors might be the next thing I’d try.
  • Review with your young adult the various strategies that you’ve both been implementing already for him to keep up with his high school classes and helping out around the house–if he’s passed high school and been accepted to college, that tells me he has some capacity for executive functioning as long as there are some supports in place. Is he a list-maker? Does he use a planner? Does he have a calendar on his phone? Do you use a weekly chore chart in the house? Every family and every individual is different, and it’s very common for most of us to use one or more helpful strategies or tools to stay on track. You will want to encourage him to replicate these same tools/strategies in his new college environment as soon as he moves out of the house. 
  • Begin the transition to more independence early.  Sit down with your young adult and discuss what activities he will need to accomplish independently when at college–doing laundry, making it to the cafeteria during mealtime, waking up to an alarm so he can make it to his classes on time, being responsible about bedtime–and think of ways you can start promoting independence on these things this summer. Follow through with natural consequences. If he commits to waking up by himself to an alarm to get to a summer job, and then sleeps through the alarm and ends up getting in trouble at work–that’s a natural consequence that he might need to experience and learn from. It can be very hard as a parent of a transitional-age youth to avoid jumping in and “rescuing” them from poor decision-making or low responsibility, but that is part of your work as a parent right now to assure a smoother transition to independent living.
  • Look at the college schedule for the academic year and plan ahead about staying connected during the week through video chats or phone calls, and make a plan for his trips home so you both know what to expect. For the extended times he plans to remain on campus, make sure you come up with some fun activities to keep yourself occupied–have there been hobbies or activities you’ve been wanting to get back into or try that you haven’t had time for? This can be a great time of personal growth for you, too!

Remember that times like this are a great opportunity for growth for everyone in your family. Sometimes growth doesn’t feel good at first (remember growing pains as a kid?), but a little bit of discomfort isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Open and honest communication and great boundaries are some of the biggest stepping stones towards this transition being as smooth as possible!  I’m excited for you!

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