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Helping Your Teen Transition to College

Submitted to the Empowerment Magazine by Sue Goetz, LCSW

Whether your teen is going to college this Fall, or in a few years, early preparation for college life can make for a smooth transition.  Did you know that most entering college freshmen significantly overestimate their ability to adjust, 25% of college Freshmen do not return to that college their sophomore year, and only 51% of entering Freshmen will graduate within five years? 


Those figures indicate to me that many teens are not as prepared for the academic, social, and emotional changes that are typical of the college experience. 


Therefore, I thought it beneficial to cover some tips for helping your teen heading off to college (and for the transition you’ll experience at home, too!).  If you’re a parent of a soon-to-be junior or senior in high school, I hope this is helpful information to keep ‘on the back burner’. 


  • Solicit your teen’s thoughts and feelings regarding leaving the familiarity of home and their friends.  Ask about things they’re excited about or what they wonder college might be like.

  • Share stories from your own college experience, or that of peers, family, etc.

  • Discuss with your partner/co-parent (if applicable) what expectations you’d like to convey to your teen regarding academics and financial responsibility for college.  (e.g., What GPA are you willing to continue to contribute to college for?, Is your teen expected to get a part time job or student loans?, etc.)

  • Expect that it will take some time to get adjusted to the new surroundings; to strike a balance between academics, activity/sports involvement, and social life.


GIVE PRACTICAL ASSISTANCE- prior to heading to the dorms, it’s helpful that your teens know the following bits of daily living skills.


  • Encourage them to get involved in school activities and campus life.  Having a balance between academics and social life is key.

  • Research groups and activities available on campus.  Being involved in a group will help introduce them to upperclassmen and peers with similar interests.  Have them consider starting a sport or activity for Fall, to meet other students  earlier than Freshman orientation.


Encourage them to attend a campus tour and orientation.  Many parents go to these, too.  It’s a great way to see the campus, meet some other incoming Freshmen, get excited about the school, and pick up those all important insignia T-shirts from the campus bookstore!


EDUCATE - your teen will encounter increased social pressures in college, with less adult supervision. 


It is difficult, if not impossible, to enforce consequences for your teen when they are in college (besides things such as pulling funding for inadequate grades), therefore it’s best to trust that with some thought beforehand to the following subjects, your teen will make responsible decisions. 


As no teen appreciates their parents’ well-meaning lectures, making inquiries and facilitating a discussion on some of the things they might face can be helpful.  Here are some talking points (not to scare you!):

  • alcohol–

  • if the campus is ‘dry’, then no alcohol is allowed in the dorms, even for students over age 21, and they can incur legal problems should they be in possession

  •  alternatives to activities and events involving alcohol

  • drugs – (similar to alcohol discussion)

  • Include the dangers of taking others’ prescriptions, such as ADHD medications that are attractive to students wanting to change their concentration or ability to stay up to study for an exam.

  • date rape –

  • educating them that drunken sex is considered non-consentual

  • encourage them to go out in groups and to communicate to their roommate or dorm friend where they’ll be

  • what to do if something happens to them or a friend

  • date rape drugs, and never leaving your drink unattended

  • academic pressure –what to do if things get to be ‘too much’, how to create a balance, how to take a reasonable courseload

  • fraternities and sororities – pros and cons


STAY INVOLVED –Assure your teen that although they will be greatly missed, you and the other family members will be okay.  Convey your excitement about this new chapter in their life.  While it’s good to stay involved, it’s best to not allow them to avoid adjusting to college life by coming home too often or too soon.  

  • Keep them informed in family goings on

  • Keep them involved in making family decisions such as Winter vacation plans

  • Send emails and letters

  • Ask them to set a regular time for you to talk on the phone

  • Send a care package or two – be sure to add extra snacks so they can share with friends in the dorm

  • Visit, according to what they feel comfortable with


LOOK FOR WARNING SIGNS-Keep eyes open for behavioral changes that may indicate something more than regular ‘growing pains’ in adjusting to college life.  Some red flags can be:

  • Changes in weight – (other than the usual “Freshman Fifteen”)

  • Change in sleep patterns – sleeping too much or too little

  • Statements of loneliness

  • Depression, irritability, or other major changes in mood

  • Withdrawal from or decrease contact with friends and family

  • Drop in grades, other than first semester Freshman year

  • Suspicious behavior, including possible drug or alcohol abuse


Speak to your child if you see any significant changes in any of the above.  Solicit their ideas of what might help the situation.  Consider pursuing professional help for your college student.  Most colleges have a counseling center accessible for students to seek short-term psychotherapy. 


College Life Preparation Book Recommendations

Here are some books pertinent to this subject that might be helpful for your teen and/or you to peruse:

College Life begins with The Freshman 40: everything you need to know about your first 40 days in college by Nick B. Herberger

How to Survive the Real World: Life After College Graduation: Advice from 774 Graduates Who Did (Hundreds of Heads Survival Guides) by Andrea Syrtash

Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years by Karen Levin Cobum and Madge Lawrence Treeger

If you’re interested in subscribing to Sue’s free bimonthly e-newsletter on tips for teens, please sign up online at

Sue Goetz is a licensed psychotherapist/ counselor in private practice, working with adolescents, adults, and families.  Meeting with her for therapy can be really helpful when struggling with troubles including but not limited to: depression, anxiety/ overwhelm, transitions (e.g., divorce), family conflict, and high-risk behavior (e.g., these warning signs).  She is also trained in a therapeutic technique called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which is highly effective in work with trauma, including abuse, complicated grief, bullying, and phobias.