More Thoughts on Sending Them Off to College

by Dr. Ann L. Engelland

(May 24, 2007) This spring, I have been asked to speak at three separate venues on the subject of transitioning to college. Interestingly, two of the three talks are for parents’ and the third is for Mamaroneck High School seniors. This underscores a phenomenon of our times-namely, that parents are more wrapped up in the lives of their offspring than in previous generations and they feel the transition, loss, change, and joy as much as the graduates.

There are a few major issues parents might consider and discuss with their fledglings over the next few months. Many will think: ”Oh, no. It’s too late. I should have talked about this when she was 10!” It’s never too late, and having waited actually gives you more history to work with. You will probably be able to cite examples from your child’s real life to illustrate the concerns that college and a new environment might raise.

Don’t underestimate the adjustment to freshman year: Many kids have spent several weeks away from family at summer camp or traveling, and some have been exceedingly well prepared for the rigors of college through AP level courses or private schools. However, for many, the adjustment challenge of college goes far beyond being away from home for a summer or handling academic concerns. Major issues include living with a stranger in a small space; an often overwhelming workload; an unprecedented level of choice in pursuits, sports, and people; an environment where many are drinking, smoking and partying more than your student is used to; coping with illness away from home in a non-nurturing environment; and a persistent lack of sleep.

Eating Habits

What used to be called the Freshman Five has now become the Freshman Fifteen There are a number of reasons for this trend, but one is the increase in access and consumption of high calorie drinks - alcoholic and otherwise. Another reason, perhaps less evident, is the increase in “stress related” eating. These habits include “no time for breakfast,” lack of sleep, mindless, impulsive and “emotional” eating. If people, including college students, are well trained in stress management, many of the other reasons for dietary indiscretion melt away. For more on the Freshman Fifteen and the connection to stress, see Coping With Stress.


It is useful to try to discuss how you will communicate with your child while away. Although this depends to a certain extent on parenting style, it is probably not necessary and sometimes excruciatingly painful to hear each hour in the evolution of the angst created by a paper that is past due. Decide if text messaging or email will work for you and how often that makes sense. Discuss how often you expect a phone call; should you set a fixed time? The voice and real-time conversations always trump email and text messages. I once thought a hand written note might be a nice touch, but my son never checked his campus mailbox!

Family Time

“What do you mean you don’t want to go to Cancun with us?” When kids come home for fall break, Thanksgiving, winter break, spring break and so forth, they are, alas, most anxious to see their friends. The family is expected to be there, firm, steady and unchanging, hanging in the background, cooking meals and doing laundry. If you have other ideas, it is good to discuss plans for family celebrations and vacations, when you would like your child home for holidays (that are often not observed by colleges), and perhaps what your expectations are for work/internship/jobs during school breaks. Some students get as much as five weeks in December/January. Many opportunities for travel, work, or “shadowing” a professional are available during this time, but these experiences require applications and planning in advance.

Managing Stress

By now it should be clear that a change in the stressors in your child’s life will be inevitable. How stress is managed is crucial. Many teens are aware of the existence of relaxation techniques but do not know how to learn and practice them. Many dvd’s and cd’s are available to get them started. Some can even be downloaded into the Ipod for a nightly ritual. Alternatively, a few sessions with an expert in relaxation, breathing technique and mindfulness can arm your child with a lifetime of protection from the strains of stress. Many of the pitfalls of poor exercise, unhealthy eating, excessive alcohol and bad work habits can be managed with some simple relaxation techniques. No one should leave home without these tools.

In addition, you might suggest that your child keep a journal for the first semester. Or try Julia Cameron’s “morning pages”—a sort of written “brain dump” done before arising that cleans the anxiety and cobwebs from the mind and allows a fresh start.

Getting Advice

As a parent, be sure you yourself know ahead of time the chain of command at the school in case your child seems to be having serious difficulty. Serious illness (e.g., “mono”), signs of depression, irresolvable roommate issues, concerns about drugs and alcohol may warrant the involvement of a responsible adult. Although resident assistants are the first in the hierarchy and living closest, they are really at the bottom of the totem pole, so it helps to know the dean, a trusted professor, or an advisor’s name and contact information so that you can give these adults a heads up if you suspect a problem. Only rarely would such a call be warranted without first letting your child know.


The aforesaid dean may not actually be able to tell you how your daughter did on her midterm or whether she has seen a psychologist at the health service unless you, and more specifically, your child have given prior permission in writing for such communication to occur. If your child’s school has such a policy (and all do with respect to medical care), talk with your child ahead of time about being allowed to have access to grades and to a clinician should the need arise. At least during the first year, this can aid in transitioning. Reassure your child that personal, private information (like their sex life) is not what you are concerned about.

Speaking of Sex

Don’t even think of having “That Talk” now. Talk about relationships and how you hope he or she will find friends of both sexes with whom to have a mutually pleasurable, supportive, respectful, and safe relationship. The rest will follow. On the other hand, if you have hesitated about the HPV (Gardasil) immunization for your daughter, now is the time. See: Once Again: New Advice on Vaccines for Teens.


Be sure your child has all prescriptions, knows how and when to use them, and knows how to be responsible for refills. It is also a good idea to be sure he or she can email or call his primary physician back home who can often handle refills and simple questions in a way that is much cozier than starting anew at the health center.

The question often arises: “When should my daughter have a gynecology exam?” In my practice I offer them to all seniors, regardless of sexual orientation or experience. It is far better to have a first pelvic exam in a familiar place with a familiar doctor and with enough time to be relaxed than to experience a cold, impersonal, chaotic ER if a problem arises and student health services are closed.


Of course, college is a time for questioning, experimentation and exploration around religion. On the other hand, many students take some comfort in the familiar rituals of their own traditions and often find adult support through campus religious activities. Know what is available to your child on his campus and encourage participation especially if he or she is not home for the major holidays. Of course, the choice is ultimately theirs but if it’s an important family value, you can bet they are expecting and actually welcome your input.


Remind your child to register to vote either at home or at college and be sure they find out about absentee ballots for important upcoming elections. 

OK To Cry

When you start to panic or when you say goodbye in the parking lot, remember this: They only go to school about 7 out of 12 months and they have lots of breaks. You will see them soon. But, weeping is OK. Weeping is just an expression of your deepest, unconditional love for this child you have nurtured to (almost) adulthood. And if a small part of you rejoices at the lightness of the nest or the relief that you’ve made it this far and so has your child, that’s OK too.

Dr. Engelland has a practice in Mamaroneck devoted to Adolescent Primary Care. She can be reached at 698-5544.