Is my teen ready for college?

Article at-a-glance:

  • Teens today are more academically but less emotionally prepared than previous generations.
  • Emotional maturity and preparation is a vital component for first-year college success.
  • Without preparation and support, freshman can find themselves isolated and overwhelmed.

Parents of teens worry about how their children will fare in the first months of college, and for good reason. As many as one-third of college freshman never return for sophomore year. But in spite of their concern, a paradox exists. Parents are doing more than ever to prepare their children academically for college, but not enough to teach them the life-skills necessary for success.

Some experts cite the way this generation has been parented as one cause. They argue that with too few expectations of responsibility and very little accountability, today’s teens are not being groomed to handle the kind of responsibilities college life requires. Others point to the tendency of today’s youth to hide behind computer and smartphone screens rather than foster connections through face-to-face interaction.

A recent Harris Poll of first-year college students reports that 77 percent of students felt social and mainstream media gave them an unrealistically positive expectation of college life. Fifty percent of students polled admitted feeling stressed most or all of the time during their first year. And how did they handle that stress? One in five turned to drugs or alcohol and 75 percent turned to screens. Along with this were significant levels of students reporting loneliness, depression, and anxiety.

Danielle was one such teen. An honor roll student who loved school and thrived on making lists, she could hardly wait to get to college. Her mother Karla remembers the months and years of preparation well. “I got her a huge white board in junior high and she began writing down all her due dates, test dates, and meetings at school about college prep.” Danielle began researching colleges in eighth grade, eventually deciding on a northwest area university known for its small class sizes and great language programs.

She quickly learned to navigate the myriad forms and the hoop jumping required to get financial aid. “She knew that stuff better than me,” her mother says. “I gave her my tax returns and let her handle it.” The organization and diligence paid off when she won a scholarship. Mother and daughter shopped together that summer for dorm essentials and talked through social and personal safety scenarios. Karla remembers wanting to instill “street smarts” in her only child before sending her off to college. The two discussed things like being aware in urban settings, not sitting in a parked car, and other prudent safety practices.

Then Danielle was off for her first real taste of adult life — freshman year at a university three hours from home.

“I’d seen movies about college, so I had expectations that it would be a bit wild,” Danielle says, “but I was completely shocked that first day to see kids in the dorms vomiting because they’d already been drinking so much.” In addition to the cultural shock, she also found herself a minority for the first time in her life. “People would make jokes when I walked by, about my race and my weight. I didn’t know how to handle it.”

Because she was an only child, Danielle had not liked the idea of sharing a room with a stranger. She campaigned for a single dorm on a co-ed floor in spite of her mother’s advice. It was a decision she would later regret because it left her isolated. When her male neighbors began harassing her in the dorm halls, calling out explicit sexual invitations and insults, she felt she had no one to turn to. To cope, she began waking at 3 a.m. or skipping classes so she could shower without being taunted.

In response to her retreat, her neighbors stepped up the harassment — bouncing basketballs against their shared wall late into the night and leaving vulgar messages on her door. When her attempts to get help from the residential advisor went unanswered, she quit going to classes and stayed in her room. Her smartphone and laptop became her only connections to the outside world.

This type of retreat was a familiar coping mechanism. During her junior year of high school, her parents let her switch to an online program when she had trouble coping with the daily routine of high school after her grandmother’s death. “I hid behind the internet. I had almost zero social interaction,” she recalls of that semester. “I had major panic attacks and locked myself inside a lot.”  She eventually rallied and returned for senior year, but retreating into the internet remained her go-to coping mechanism for stress.

At college, it didn’t take long for the isolation and emotional pressure to reach a crisis point. One day, Danielle went to the mental health clinic and confessed she was in danger of hurting herself. “Then the administration wanted to help,” she says, “but at that point I was done. I had to leave to protect myself.”

Danielle returned home during first term and began re-examining what she wanted from her college experience.

Two years later, she now says there’s a lot her twenty-year-old self would have handled better in the same situation. Besides confronting her neighbors and getting help from the administration sooner, she says she may not even have gone to a four-year school right away.

“I didn’t even try for scholarships at the local college,” she admits. “I thought community college was for people who didn’t really want to succeed and I wanted to go to a prestigious university. Now I think community college is the smartest thing I’ve done.”

Karla also concedes she would parent differently now. “I’d have allowed her to resolve conflicts on her own rather than stepping in for her,” she says. Giving her more opportunities to try on adult roles, to have “the meltdowns” and pick herself up again, might have better prepared her for the realities of life at college.

Danielle credits working full time, attending the local college, and learning to live on her own for building her confidence and assertiveness. “I used to cry if someone was rude to me.” Now at her job in the state judicial department, she says rudeness barely phases her.

She’s also picked up skills she wasn’t expected to learn at home like meal planning, laundry, and even taking ownership of her health. Since leaving Pacific, she’s lost the weight she used to use as another excuse to isolate herself.

Danielle is currently majoring in criminology and plans to graduate in 2018.

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