Family Blog: Help Your Teen Become More Independent Before College

As a parent, an important part of our mission statement is to give support to our children.  We notice where difficulties arise and often feel the call to action to help. Over the years, we have lovingly erected scaffolding around our children as a framework of support. We find ourselves providing that support in multiple ways. Tears can be met with a hug when a disappointment or setback happens or with a suggestion or alternative plan when your child is faced with a difficult challenge.   The high school years get more complicated, being at least partially geared to getting into college. To help, you wake up early to get your teen to their job, community service commitment or team practice.  You might also find yourself supporting your teen’s academic progress by helping plan out a term paper or finding a study partner or tutor.

It’s a time of celebration and relief when your teen receives that college acceptance letter. The hardest part seems to be over and you can be in that happy space—mission accomplished!  The scaffolding you put in place did its job.  So go ahead, buy the X-long sheets for the dorm bed.

But now hit the Pause button–mission continues. How do you help your teen prepare for the transition to college? The challenges of surviving and thriving in college are huge, so help your teen master the basics and thrive on their own.

Here’s what you and they need to do in order to begin building up their own skill sets and dismantling the scaffolding:

  • Wake up on their own: Retire from your job as the human alarm clock. Teens do not get enough sleep and parents know it. So the compassionate, parental heart approves the request for “five more minutes” and plays the role of a human snooze button. But in order to be successful in college, teens need to figure out their own sleeping habits and if they can manage with one alarm or two, or if the clock should be placed across the room.
  • Be in charge of their homework: Turn in your shield as the homework police. You may feel like jumping out of your skin when you see your teen watching some “stupid show” instead of studying. An assignment might be late or missed while your student takes over, but they’ll learn.
  • Manage their own money: Step down as banker. Developing a sense of what things cost, making choices, and keeping track of purchases are essential skills. Small purchases, which may be very reasonable, do add up to much larger numbers. Help your teen create and manage a budget. Some students can handle a budget for the semester, whereas others do better with a monthly or weekly budget.
  • Fend for themselves—housekeeping, laundry, and food: Discontinue the full maid, laundry, and catering service. Teens need to experience moving clothes off the floor to the hamper or washing machine and that reading laundering tags isn’t totally unnecessary. Even picking the cleanest clothes from the dirty pile has limits.  As a first-year college student, your child will likely be in a cafeteria with unlimited pizza, fries, and junk food.  Having some guidelines and practicing healthy food foraging may help in avoiding the “freshman 15”.  After sharing basic nutrition and housekeeping info, pass the baton to your teen.
  • Manage their own appointments and schedule: Resign your role as personal secretary. “Mom, (Dad), you call” is a request we often hear but this doesn’t translate when your teen is on a college campus. Have your teen start making their own appointments and keeping their own calendar, taking on the responsibility of remembering the commitment and showing up on time.

Of course, your teen will not take on these independent life skills all at once.  You can help them develop and improve these skills over time.  Why is it so important for your student to master these life skills?  Because getting these basics down helps free them up for the other challenges of college and will help the transition to life at college feel less stressful.  Supporting your teen’s road to mastering these skills by not acting on your urge to step in to help isn’t easy.  But by allowing them to stumble and fumble, you communicate your belief that they will get it; that you have faith in their abilities. Most important, it will enable your child to move the scaffolding which you have lovingly erected around them into a foundation and structure that will support your teen from inside themselves.

Dr. Risa Ryger, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist
Teen Stress Solutions

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