The Challenging Transition From High School To College

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 089 · Duration: 00:11:07

The Challenging Transition From High School To College


Teenagers often find the transition from high school to college challenging. They’re leaving their comfort zone which could lead to them having problems socially and emotionally. As a parent, how do you deal with this situation?

Today we’re answering a question from Jack of Lincoln Nebraska:

My daughter received a scholarship to a really good school and now after one semester wants to come back home and go to the local college. She’s plenty smart and should be able to make friends and do well. But she misses her boyfriend and says all the kids at school are stuck up. Her grades are good so that’s not the problem.We’re surprised by her request and are mixed in how to respond. She talks with us, mostly her Mom, several times a day, but this isn’t unusual as that was our pattern when she was at home. We could say, “sure come home”, but then she wouldn’t be giving it a chance. We’re not sure whether we should say “stay and work things out”, but that would be forcing her to do something she doesn’t feel ready for.What advice can you offer us?

The Difficulty of the Transition

Thanks for your question Jack. The transition to college is a not a fully recognized challenge for most kids.  In recent times, the transition has only gotten harder.  For a lot of teenagers, it may be the first time they’ve lived away from home or away from adult structures that organize their day for any length of time.  For the first time, they are responsible for their schedule.  They are responsible for when they wake up, and go to sleep. They can decide to study or not, go to class or not, clean their rooms or not. They can decide to go to parties, use drugs and alcohol or not. 

Oftentimes, they need to form relationships with other kids without knowing anything about any of them.  This is a ton of responsibility that requires confidence, planning and organization skills, flexibility, self-management, and social skills.  Kids will not have all this in place when they transition to college. 

Why do I say it’s more difficult now?  Kids today have the technology that allows them to stay very connected to their old friends and that can interfere with making new friends. Previously, when kids settled into their dorm rooms they’d go into each other’s rooms, meet each other and socialize.  Now, when kids get to their dorms for the first time, they close the door and get on their devices and engage there. 

Many colleges have a strong culture of drug and alcohol abuse and peer pressure will invite kids to abuse drugs and alcohol.  The kids who don’t want to party, and don’t use that fast lane to social engagement, can initially feel alone like they don’t fit in. 

It’s also clear that the proliferation of smart phones, social media and gaming worlds for young people have inhibited their social and emotional skill development. Many kids will simply not be good at in-person relationships.Click To Tweet

Enmeshed vs. Disengaged Teens

So Jack, you have a well-supported, high achieving young adult daughter who is struggling emotionally and socially.  Let’s look at a couple of things.  First of all, your family is very close, so the separation can be tough for your daughter.  There’s nothing wrong with that. Some parents and kids are more interactive and your daughter can have more reliance on her parents than some other kids.

 Think of a continuum and on the far left side are kids who are extremely engaged with their families and self-defined by their role in the family. We call that enmeshed.  On the right side of the continuum are kids who are not very connected, interactive or supported in their family. We call that disengaged.  The far left and far right ends of the spectrum are unhealthy but that leaves a healthy middle.  You guys lean somewhat to the left.

The support and structure your daughter received helped her do really well.  Now the challenge is for her to learn to function more independently.  She needs to be comfortable being uncomfortable, to have faith in herself and her situation and know that if she uses her skills and her best judgment, things will work out.  She’ll need to take some risks and have some things not work out. 

Risk taking, struggling, and sometimes failing, are important parts of learning and growing. Click To Tweet It sounds like your daughter did really well in high school, and now we want her to do really well in her late adolescence and young adulthood, and after that, her adulthood. 

A Dialogue with your Teen

So Jack, here is what I recommend. 

Realize that the goal is to help your daughter develop self-reliance and self-confidence.  It's not about allowing her to come home or not.  More than being successful in any one class, test or situation, it’s important that she feels confident that her best is good enough and learning and growing are the most important things.  I would talk with her about the social challenges she’s facing and express confidence in her ability to manage them.  You might talk to her like this. I’ll call your daughter Amy.

"Amy, the stresses and challenges you are experiencing are completely reasonable.  You left a world that you were very comfortable in; in fact a star in, and went to an unfamiliar world that you have yet to figure out and find your place in.  That’s got to be uncomfortable and I’m proud of you for facing it.  Plus it’s the first time you’ve been away from your boyfriend and it’s putting stress on your relationship. 

If at the end of the day, you don’t feel quite ready for this transition and want to go to college locally for a couple of years, that’s fine.  But Amy, this is a time in your life where investment in yourself needs to be the priority.  Trust me, there is plenty of time ahead to prioritize relationship needs over your own needs, so take full advantage of this period in your life.  My best advice to you is to hang in there and give it time.  You’ve always been good at figuring things out and finding a way to do well and I’m confident you’ll be able to accomplish that here too.  We’re here to support you every step of the way and I don’t think it will be long before you want us to stay out of your hair because you’re busy and have other people to talk with."

In Conclusion

Jack, I know this may sound like a bit of a contradiction. I’ve said we need to help your daughter feel confident in her own decisions and here I am encouraging you to advise your daughter in a specific direction.  That’s because your family is on the left side of the close vs. disengaged side of the continuum and your daughter’s opportunity is to move to the right and develop her independence.  If she decides to come home, that’s fine too and you can support her in continuing to develop her independence a bit more gradually. 

So parents, therapists, teachers, and folks of all kinds who work with teenagers; let’s ask ourselves the question, are we preparing our kids for independence?Click To Tweet  Are we helping them to feel confident in their abilities, or are we over-focused on performance and doing everything “right” to get into college, only to find themselves socially and emotionally unprepared to deal with stress once they get there?

Thanks for tuning in everyone and special thanks to Jack for his question.  Now that we’re into the holiday season, it’s more important than ever that you take care of yourselves. You Need It, You Deserve It, You’re Worth It.  Bye for now.

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Posted in The Healthy Family Connections Podcast.