The first days and weeks of a teen’s college career can be filled with mixed emotions—the excitement of a new phase of life with more independence, the nervousness of meeting new people, and perhaps the anxiety of managing the college workload. Many of us may remember those first tenuous steps into adulthood as college students. As parents, our first instinct during this phase may be to ensure that this transition to college is perfect and without mistakes or difficulties. In reality, however, this transition often has ups and downs. Parenting our teens through this transition requires a tricky balance of guidance and support for autonomy. Let’s take a look at how we can best approach parenting during this phase.
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The Phase of Emerging Adulthood
Although much emphasis is placed on supporting teens’ acceptance into college, the transition from high school to higher education is not always a smooth path. Without strong parental and educational support, many teens falter in those early years of college and some end up dropping out altogether. Recent studies find that as many as 30 percent of college students drop out and over half of students end up taking more than six years to graduate.1 Research points to social and emotional factors as one of the strongest predictors of dropping out.1 Many teens struggle with finding their place in the university environment and the added academic demands that require not only an intellectual adjustment but an ability to manage their emotions in healthy ways.
From a developmental perspective, it is perhaps not surprising that this transition can be challenging for many teens. The college years typically correspond with a phase of development known as “emerging adulthood” (ages 18–25).2 It’s characterized by a gradual increase in self-sufficiency (both financially and in decision-making) and a bit of a separation from parents.2 This strive for independence, coupled with the new stresses of college life, can make this phase tumultuous for both teens and parents. Managing relationships with parents, along with establishing new friendships and keeping up with college-level classwork, can all be a lot for teens to handle.
Parenting Through This Transition
For parents too, their teen’s transition to college can put them in somewhat uncertain territory. Many parents may feel unsure of what or how much support to offer their teens. Luckily, research does offer us some insight into the types of parenting styles that can foster a positive college transition for teens.
As with many aspects of parenting, an authoritative style seems to help promote a smoother transition to college.1 In this phase of development, authoritative parenting tends to involve practices like providing clear expectations coupled with emotional support for your teen, as well as being open to sharing emotions.1 Research shows that this approach to parenting is linked to higher self-esteem in teens, and this, in turn, supports their transition to college well.1
Another reason why authoritative parenting may be linked to a smoother college transition is its tendency to support teens’ autonomy. Autonomy-supportive parenting seems to be another clear way that parents can foster their teens’ successful transition to college. Research has linked autonomy-supportive parenting to a greater sense of competence and greater life satisfaction among new college students.3
However, the balance between providing guidance for teens while still supporting their autonomy can be challenging. Teens who perceived their parents to be controlling during the college transition had higher rates of depression and anxiety.3 As scholars point out, there seems to be a “sweet spot”4 in parenting with guidance but not overtaking teens’ autonomy and taking the decision-making out of their hands. It seems clear that during this transition to college, teens need the opportunity to make their own choices while still receiving emotional support (when needed) from parents.
Tips for Parents of College-Bound Teens
While the research clearly points to particular parenting styles that support teens’ successful transition to college, some parents may wonder what exactly these parenting styles look like in real life. These tips are helpful to keep in mind as you parent your teen through the transition to college life and adulthood.
Don’t Rescue Too Quickly: Teens transitioning to college often experience a wide range of emotions, many of them quite difficult. As parents, it’s often our first reaction to try to minimize those difficult emotions or distract teens from them (“It’s not so bad is it?” or “I’m sure you are doing fine with making friends.”) This can sometimes make teens feel as though their emotions aren’t valid. Instead, focus on hearing and allowing all those emotions, even the difficult ones. Resist the urge to “fix” their difficult feelings right away by dismissing them or offering to bring them home for a visit right away.
Sometimes, however, it can be helpful to point out any “thinking errors” your teen might be expressing. For example, phrases like “I will never make any friends” or “I’m a horrible student” are examples of negative thinking or “all-or-nothing” thinking patterns5 which are not helpful for anyone, especially teens. Pointing out times in the past when your teen has successfully managed challenges or difficulties may help them pull from their emotional reserves for coping with this challenge as well.
Foster Self-Compassion and Mindfulness: Teens may be prone to comparing themselves to others or harshly judging their adjustment during this transition to college. They may assume that their classmates and friends have had an easier time adjusting to college than them. This is where self-compassion and mindfulness can be very important. Fostering these skills in teens can offer them a set of cognitive and emotional tools with which to cope with these feelings. In our role as parents, we can support teens in using these skills by reminding them not to judge themselves and their emotions harshly and that many teens struggle during this transition. Studies find that teens who utilize self-compassion6 and mindfulness tend to have a more positive transition to college and are able to cope better with negative events and emotions.7
Navigating This Key Transition
Managing our expectations regarding the transition to college can be a key first step in supporting our teens. Keep in mind that many teens struggle with this transition, and it’s not uncommon to experience some bumps along the path. Navigating this phase well often means supporting your teen emotionally while still allowing them to have autonomy over many decisions and plans. This is a balancing act, but with patience, this time will foster a new phase of growth in your teen that will prepare them well for adulthood.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.
- Moon-Seo, S. K., Sung, J., Moore, M., & Koo, G. (2021). Important Role of Parenting Style on College Students’ Adjustment in Higher Education. Educational Research: Theory and Practice, 32(2), 47-61, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1296527.pdf
- Lowe, K. & Dotterer, A. (2018). Parental Involvement During the College Transition: A Review and Suggestion for its Conceptual Definition. Adolescent Research Review. 3 (1), https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317170476_Parental_Involvement_During_the_College_Transition_A_Review_and_Suggestion_for_its_Conceptual_Definition
- Prinz, I. (2018) A Longitudinal Study of How Autonomy Supportive Parenting Relates to Motivation, Coping, and Well-Being Across the Transition to College, Dissertation, Haverford College, https://scholarship.tricolib.brynmawr.edu/bitstream/handle/10066/20783/2018PrinzI.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
- Goldsmith, J. (2018) The Parenting Sweet Spot with College-Bound Kids. The Family Institute, Northwestern University, https://www.family-institute.org/behavioral-health-resources/parenting-sweet-spot-college-bound-kids
- Newman, S. (2018) 15 Tips to Ease the Transition From High School to College. Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/singletons/201807/15-tips-ease-the-transition-high-school-college
- Kroshus, E., Hawrilenko, M., and Browning, A. (2021) Stress, Self-Compassion, and Well-Being During the Transition to College. Social Science and Medicine, 269, https://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Kroshus-et-al.-2021-Stress-self-compassion-and-well-being-during-the.pdf
- Dvořáková, K., Greenberg, M., and Roeser, R. (2019) On the Role of Mindfulness and Compassion Skills in Students’ Coping, Well-being and Development across the Transition to College: A Conceptual Analysis. Stress Health, 35(2): 146–156, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6491916/