One Foot Out the Door?

For parents, the impending departure of their child for college generates a wide variety of emotions. There is pride felt for their child’s great accomplishments and excitement for all the wonderful things their future holds. On the other hand, there is also sadness, because it’s time to “let go,” and fear of the decisions their son or daughter will be faced with as they start this new, independent chapter of their lives.

One of the greatest fears many parents have involve drugs and alcohol. Talking with your child before college reduces the risk of unhealthy decision making. However, it is important to expand the conversation beyond just the facts about substance use. Rather, focus the discussion on maintaining their overall well-being as they experience the many changes that lie ahead. This will motivate them to think about their personal priorities and values and how to honor those with each decision they make. It will also help by preparing them with the necessary coping skills for any stressful situations they will experience as a new college student.

Important topics to discuss during these pre-college conversations include:


Setting clear, realistic expectations is important. It helps college bound students navigate their new lives by having a general understanding of what they need to be doing academically, financially, and behaviorally. However, allowing your children to discuss their expectations for what college will be like can be just as important. This can help them adjust if things don’t go exactly as planned. For some college students, stress and anxiety can be at a high due to the change of leaving home, the experience of living with roommates, the pressure of meeting new people, and the difficulty of taking more challenging classes. Knowing how to cope with unmet expectations and/or difficult situations can help reduce these stress and anxiety levels.

Physical Health and Safety

Openly discuss diet, sleep, physical activity, and other healthy habits. Ask if they have any questions or concerns regarding how to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Offer helpful suggestions and assistance with identifying where to go if they get sick or injured. Depending on the school, their resources usually include resident advisors, campus security, student health services, and the local police department.

Mental Health

Most people have no problem identifying when they feel physically ill. Mental illness can be a bit trickier. The signs and symptoms can vary among individuals and it can be hard for people to tell if what they’re feeling is a bad day, stressful week, or something more. Talk with your child about stress, anxiety and depression. Explain any family history of mental illness and how that may affect them. Most importantly, help them find their resources on campus, such as a counseling center. Remind them that even though they are away from home, you are still a phone call away to help.

Drugs and Alcohol

This is an extremely important time for your kids to be reminded of the dangers regarding drugs and alcohol. Review state laws and campus policies on underage drinking and drug use. They may not fully understand that the consequences for being caught drinking or using drugs will go beyond punishments given by their parents. As a young adult, they will now be held accountable for their decisions in a way that can have more long-term effects on their futures.  It is also imperative to discuss additional risks posed if your child is taking any prescription medications and/or has a family history of drug or alcohol abuse. They may not know that certain risk factors make them more likely to be affected by alcohol and drug experimentation than their peers.

Peer Pressure

College kids may think the social pressures they’ve faced in middle and high school are all behind them. As it turns out, living with their peers in a dorm creates even more opportunities for pressure among friends. When discussing this, the main point to convey is personal responsibility for their choices. As an adult, they need to start making more decisions on their own that they feel proud of and that make them a better person. Help them develop the confidence needed to do this by talking with them about what kinds of decisions they want to make rather than solely focusing on decisions you’d like them to make. Incorporating their goals into the conversation can help steer them in the right direction. If the choices they plan on making will reduce the likelihood of them reaching their goals, help them understand this and adjust accordingly.

Maintaining Communication

Trying to prove their independence to themselves and others, new college students may feel they must deal with any problems that arise all on their own. Remind them that even independent adults need help, support, and advice at times! Having a time to check in with one another is a helpful way to keep the lines of communication open. This looks different for every family. Some will want to communicate more frequently than others. Come up with a plan that suits both you and your child. Comparing schedules and setting aside some times you are both available to talk can be a helpful starting point. Routine conversations will allow you to pick up on signs of stress, especially in the first semester as your child experiences their adjustment period.

Making The Most Out Of Their Experience

Young people become so accustomed to their elders telling them what not to do that they may begin to tune out conversations. While discussing behaviors to avoid is monumentally important, it is equally as important to include what they should be doing. This helps steer the conversation in a more positive direction. Remind them of the many opportunities they will have over the next four years to not only better their future, but to enjoy different experiences, make new friends, and learn more about themselves. Culturally, many kids see college as a constant party scene. It is important that they are reminded of the many positive opportunities offered at their school including campus events, university organizations, volunteer projects, study abroad programs, and internships. These are the experiences which help many college students create their best memories.

Remember, there is an adjustment period for parents too! Click here for information and resources to adjust to your new role as a college parent.



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