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How Can I Help Prepare My Teen for College Life?

How Can I Help Prepare My Teen for College Life?

How to help your teen get ready for—and succeed in—his first year of higher education

Sending your teen off to college can bring up a lot of emotions for both of you. While you'll still worry about your child getting enough sleep, being safe at parties, and getting all of their school work done, there are conversations you can have with your teen to prepare him for the sudden independence he's about to gain. Experts share three conversations you should have with your teen before she heads to college to help her thrive and be successful.

College is a brand-new experience for teens, and while it can be exciting, it can also be overwhelming. The number one thing parents can do to prepare their teen for her first semester is to talk to her and let her know it’s okay to experience a range of conflicting emotions.

Katherine Fireborn, parenting expert and head of the Fireborn Institute, which helps students thrive in school through parent education, says teens are likely experiencing a lot of emotions about the transition and tend to focus on the negative.

“You really want to talk about preparing for college,” Fireborn says. “It is totally different than anything they’ve ever experienced. Ask what they’re looking forward to, what they’re scared of.”

But don’t be overbearing or push the subject too hard with your teen since it can lead to feelings of uncertainty, Fireborn notes. If your teen seems to be uninterested in talking, it can help to share fun stories with him about your college experience and what you were excited for, such as going out with friends during the week or extracurricular activities.

Having a few conversations with your teen about what to expect and how to handle herself will go a long way to ensuring she has a successful four years at college.

Start to Give Your Teen More Independence

Since attending college is likely the first time your teen will be on his own, give him more independence this summer. Have her practice for college by letting her have a later curfew or not “checking in” with her as often as you normally would. It could make the transition to being in charge of his own schedule easier.

“If they make a mistake, you want them to make it while they’re still at home, so you are there for them and have a non-overbearing discussion about it,” Fireborn says.

Talk to Your Teen About Advocating for Academic Success

Classes and academic work are essential to the college experience—they’re the reasons your teen is there, after all. College courses tend to have more rigorous syllabi than high school, so it can be difficult for some students to keep up. But the scare tactics some high school teachers love to use about professors only caring about their paycheck and not their students are often false and can lead to discouragement.

“Professors are not in the business of wanting to fail students,” says Rogernelle Griffin, director of William Paterson University’s Academic Success Center. “If students don’t have a grasp of the material or [are] intimidated, they’ll withdraw [from the class] and not be engaged.”

But students have to be the one to initiate contact, according to Griffin. A professor won’t know if a student is struggling unless the student approaches her and takes advantage of her office hours. Students who want to do well will be attentive and go after their grade.

Parents should encourage self-advocacy and tell their teen it’s okay to ask for help, Griffin says. Many academic advisors and tutoring centers have open door policies and can answer any questions students may have. If your teen is struggling, Griffin recommends asking him, “Have you visited the academic success center?” instead of pressuring him by saying, “I’m paying all this money.”

And just talking about it isn’t enough, Fireborn says. It is also important for teens to check their school’s resources as soon as possible, especially if your teen has learning disabilities. “By being aware of what’s offered, if something arises, you know where to go for help,” Fireborn says.

In addition to encouraging their teen to speak up for herself, parents should suggest she get involved in clubs and activities on campus. Students who are involved in extracurricular activities tend to get better grades, says Zoe Ragouzeos, Ph.D., LCSW, executive director of Counseling and Wellness Services at New York University.

Talk to Your Teen About Staying Healthy

Talking to your teen about his physical and mental health while he’s in school is important to his success. A good mental health discussion for parents to have with their teen is the importance of eating well, getting adequate sleep, and setting time aside to unwind, Dr. Ragouzeos says. But decide how much you’re going to do for your teen once she’s in college, he advises. There is a line between advocating for your teen and not teaching him how to be his own advocate.

Megan Hener, certified personal trainer and owner of Meg Hener Fitness in Clifton, NJ, believes lack of structure is the number one culprit for deteriorating physical and mental health in college students, along with exhaustion from over scheduling. “Sometimes meal prepping takes time and a lot of college students do not want to invest the time out of their already packed schedules. The same goes for workouts,” she says.

But a healthy lifestyle is so important—in college and in life after. 

“There are no negatives to living a healthy lifestyle and it’s setting the stage for the rest of your life,” Hener says. “First is the obvious, looking and feeling better overall. Exercise also helps you mentally. When you do something for yourself daily, it gives you an opportunity to clear your head and feel good about yourself.”

Share these tips with your teen to help her stay healthy, mentally and physically:

  • Find on-campus resources. If your teen is on medication and/or is seeing a therapist prior to college, have her connect with and learn about her school’s resources before she arrives, Dr. Ragouzeos recommends.
  • Make time for fitness. A busy lifestyle is no excuse to neglect physical well-being. Hener’s an entrepreneur and mom of two, yet still clears one to two hours a day for her workouts. “I set aside that time no matter what, whether it’s not scheduling clients or waking up extra early,” she says.
  • Choose healthier options. Eating fresh, full, and balanced meals with healthy proteins and fats cuts down on snacking and late-night binge eating. “Packing healthy snacks [helps to avoid] hitting the vending machines,” Hener says. “Looking at menus before going out to eat and knowing what you will order can reduce giving into peer pressure to make an unhealthy choice.”
  • Get a workout buddy or register for a group workout. Once you get into a groove of incorporating workouts into your daily life, it becomes something you actually look forward to. 
  • Drink in moderation if you are of legal age. Avoiding alcohol may not feel like an option to some college students, but refraining from drinking every night and choosing a light beer over sweeter drinks is a way to watch sugar intake.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Many schools have anonymous hotlines and can connect students to external sources if needed. Although there continues to be stigma around mental health, it is much different than it used to be.

Talk to Your Teen About Being Safe at Parties

It is important to remind your child that movies depicting college party scenes are not reality; they rarely show the consequences of partying and drinking. And give her these basic tips for having fun wisely:

  • Have a designated driver. This person should be determined before she and her group of friends arrive at the party. Ask if she has Uber or Lyft downloaded on her smartphone for easy access. (She should always double check that the driver is the same person indicated on her phone, and that the license plate is a match as well.)
  • Have a buddy system. Be sure your teen knows to arrive at and leave the party in the same Uber, Lyft, or designated driver’s car as his friends.
  • Keep an eye on your drinks, even nonalcoholic ones. This will decrease any chances of her drink being tampered with. 

Though you may not be ready to talk about your child leaving the nest just yet, having discussions with your teen about these topics can prevent future issues. “You don’t want to wait until there is a problem or scramble at the last minute,” Dr. Ragouzeos says.


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Caitlin Sawicki


Caitlin Sawicki, a former NYMP editorial intern, is a recent college graduate who will begin studying for her M.F.A. in Creative and Professional Writing in the fall. She loves going shopping, and her favorite animal is an otter.

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