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Getting Ready For College

Parents of college freshmen face a rite of passage this fall when they take their sons and daughters to campus for the first time.

For this group of teens, autumn not only brings a new school, but new friends and an independence they've probably never experienced before. So psychologist Lawrence Balter offers advice for parents and college freshmen as they prepare for the year ahead.


Preparation

Sending a son or daughter off to college for the first time has got to be a very difficult move for most parents. After all, this isn't the same as a 4-week or 8-week stay at a summer camp. It is a big commitment and a major step toward independent living, says Dr. Balter.

Parents should think about their own feelings of loss and exhilaration. Of course, most parents are glad to see children move on to this important stage of their lives. But at the same time, parents know that the relationship will never be quite the same again, even if their children turn out to be 'boomerang' children, who come home again after college.

Mixed feelings can be expressed in lots of ways: sometimes kids and parents fight a lot because there is so much tension in the air. Sometimes, parents and kids become overly solicitous toward one another as they anticipate the big separation.

Up until now, parents have been trying to get their children to take care of themselves and live up to their responsibilities. In a way, this is the big test.

From Big Fish to Little Fish

In high school, your son or daughter may have been the star of the basketball team or class valedictorian, but usually that's not going to be the case in college. This often becomes a question of self-image - how they see themselves. You should talk to your child about this and help him or her to set realistic expectations (different from high school).

Separation from Family

It is important to talk to your child about living with people who are not related. They will often be paired with one or two roommates, usually in close quarters. You need to try to allay any fears they might have about these new relationships. You should also bring up the subject of fiends and remind your child that good friendships take time and effort to develop.

Alcohol and Sex

These are topics that are likely to have come up before. While most 18-year-olds are reluctant to discuss these subjects with Mom and Dad, your child still needs your guidance. Discuss drinking responsibly and safely and remind them that many students choose not to drink. They should not feel pressured to drink just because their friends do. Regarding sex, if you haven't done so yet, this is an important time to talk about AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. They need to know what is out there and how easily they can be exposed.

Signs of Freshman Stress

Typical freshman symptoms are lower grades, weight gain and homesickness. It's important to listen for signs of depression or unhappiness. Parents should be patient and supportive. They should keep in mind that grades may temporarily suffer because of the strains of the initial adjustment.

And if your children have put on the "Freshman 15," the excess weight that is so common, tell them they are not alone, but suggest they try to eat at regular meal times and avoid the late-night pizzas and fast food, which are all too common in dorms.

Parents also shouldn't hesitate to stay in touch by emailing, phoning, sending letters and care packages. And when you do talk, tell them the latest, but don't pry.

Additional Help

If it gets really bad and your child talks about wanting to take a year off, whether it's because of the pressure or just because he's homesick, don't rule it out without giving it a fair hearing. But first, try to encourage him or her to give it some more time. You should encourage your child to speak to a dean or to contact the college's counseling center. Freshman blues usually do pass and if they don't, taking a year off isn't the worst thing that can happen.

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