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Your teen is going to college in the fall: Here's how to make the most of the next three months

The time between high school graduation and leaving the nest is often precious, emotional, and downright scary.
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You may have high hopes for this time to be special; a last chance for you and your teen to bond before they leave. But the reality may not meet all of your expectations. Your teen is likely having just as difficult a time as you process all of the change. We talked to our youth advisors to see if they and their parents thought they were ready to graduate high school. Here are some of their answers, as well as some perspective to keep in mind to help the transition go a lot more smoothly.

Acknowledging their feelings—both excitement and fear

I am most excited about the freedom that I will have when I graduate from high school. The freedom that I am searching for is not to escape my family or anything of the sorts, but the freedom of going to a college and being myself without having the restrictions of my high school weighing on my shoulders. I have dreamed about this escape for years, and I can finally envision an end where I will be able to see the world and experience living in a culture that is different from my piece of rural America.” - Lexie, Class of 2017, Summersville, WV

In the summer before college, feelings can range from excitement to sadness, and fear, to nostalgia as your teen gets ready to leave you and their home. As Marjorie Savage, Education Specialist in Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota, says in her book, You’re On Your Own (But I’m Here If You Need Me), “Your child is midway between childhood and adulthood, and every step forward is made with the assumption that things are still solid at home and the fear that they are not.”

Your teens will likely be excited to start this new phase of their life. It is important to recognize that this time is not only momentous for your family, but huge for your teen as they begin to form their adult life and identity. If you focus all the attention on your sadness over them leaving home, or the challenge of college academics, you miss an opportunity to acknowledge your teen’s real feelings of joy. And you may miss the opportunity to see your child begin to turn into a young adult. Acknowledge their excitement, and be excited with them. This will be an invaluable time to spend looking forward to the future together.

Beyond excitement lies fear, which your teen is no doubt feeling in some capacity as they get ready to leave for school. They fear the unknown, a completely new world in which they are about to enter. It’s important to recognize that all family members will be feeling something and to not shy away from the real issues that may come up. Savage explains that young adults will most likely be scared, but will not usually express these concerns about upcoming changes. Instead, expect some anger or aloofness as your teen processes their conflicting feelings. Dr. Shari Sevier, a licensed school counselor and mom, recalls her son flexing his “I’m independent” muscle the summer before he left for college. She says she later realized it was his way of hiding his anxiety and fear of the future. Education consultant Jennifer Miller says a lot of conflicts can crop up between parents and teens at this time that is evidence of separation anxiety. “Anticipating the pain of that transition and coping with that fear can lead teens to push their parents away both physically (by not spending time with them) and emotionally (by getting into more conflicts and disagreements),” Miller says. Reassure your teen that you will always be there for them, even if they don’t seem to want to hear it. Miller suggests planning a specific date when they will first come home to visit, that way your teen realizes that they are not leaving for good.

On the flip side, just when you think you are showing excitement and encouragement for your young adult departing for college, they might start to get the feeling that everyone is a “little too happy that I’m leaving,” Savage says. Be wary that many emotions will likely appear during this summer. Use this time to tell your young adult how much you love them, how proud of them you are, and how much you believe in them to succeed in the world.

Having conversations—from the practical to the wise

“I think I’m ready for life after high school, maturity-wise. I’m confident that I could live on my own because I’m much more capable of taking care of myself than my brother was and he apparently ended up just fine at college. The only problem would be my chef skills which are essentially limited to making grilled cheese, cereal, and a salad. I don’t really know how to make anything besides those, so that might pose a slight problem. My parents don’t think I’m ready to graduate because they think I depend on my mom’s help too much. They’re worried that I couldn’t balance living on my own with my school work. To be fair, my mom does my cooking, laundry, and cleaning so I do depend on her a lot. I think if I moved out I could do it all on my own, if given the chance.” - Jasman, Class of 2018, Hightstown, NJ

As you and your teen are getting ready for the big move, there will be hundreds of questions running through your head: Did I explain to him why you should always make eye contact when talking to people? Will she be able to ride the bus to class? Does he know how to iron his shirt? Did I ever tell her that anecdote about finding ‘the one’? While it may seem like you have to impart every last piece of advice you can think of before your teen leaves the house, this can be overwhelming for your teen (and you!). Instead, focus on what you can do and start these conversations early. Both you and your teen will be thankful you didn’t wait until the last week to try and fill your teen’s mind with all of your knowledge.

Look for any time your teen talks about a present-day social situation or tells you a story as an opportunity for conversation. For example, your teen may say, “Jeff had a party without his parents’ permission…” or “I can’t wait to live on my own and have no one watching over me…” Miller suggests using moments like these to highlight cause and effect. “Remember that the teen’s biological brain does not fully form until early to mid-twenties,” Miller says. These conversations can help them think through their actions before they make any risky decisions.

Other conversations may be good to have a little more formally. For topics around finances and other specific skills or concepts they need to know, Savage suggests setting times for these conversations instead of talking at your teen. For instance, you may say, “When I do taxes next year, there will be some important information I need from you about your college expenses. Can we spend an hour on Saturday talking more about this?” This allows you to make time for these important conversations without feeling like you are nagging your teen.

And of course, there are the practical life skills that your teen should have before living on their own. Miller suggests you could make teaching these skills a family game. For example, make dinner together every Sunday night or learn laundry basics through a game of “laundry basketball” while sorting your darks and lights.

When you can’t savor everything

“The thing I am most excited and scared about are the same thing… The unknown. What happens after high school? When I enter the ’real world,’ there will be an insurmountable amount of unknown. Not only does it terrify me that I won’t know the kinds of obstacles and hardships I’ll face, it also excites me at all the opportunity that can be and all the places I can go, the things I can learn, and the people I can meet.” - Shreyas, Class of 2018, Claymont, DE

Be careful to not get too caught up in what Savage calls “last time syndrome,” where a dinner, a night spent watching TV together, and a shopping outing becomes the last time you will do any of this together. While inside you may be screaming, “I’m just not ready for this!” try not to let these feelings take you away from the moments with your family and your young adult.

Get the quality time in early in the summer. If possible, plan a family trip or some special outings. These are memories your young adult will carry with them to college and beyond. Expect them to want to spend a lot of time with their friends, who likely are also leaving for college soon. You may be hurt if your teen is busy every night during this time, but your teen is holding on to friendships from childhood and bonding with their peers about this new phase. Leaving friends and relationships is hard for anyone, especially at such a vulnerable and changing time in life. Recognize that your teen is not trying to hurt you, but just expects you will always be there for them.

You could look at this time as the start of reinvesting in yourself, too. Miller suggests thinking about one passion to pursue or friend to invest in during the summer to supplement all the time and preparation focused on your teen. “If a parent is solely focused on the teen, it can add to the conflict and tension,” Miller says. “Parents need to make sure their own needs are taken care of.”

If you’re finding the transition hard, or even if you’re not, keeping a few things in mind about letting go can make the process feel a little less overwhelming. You may feel at times that you have so much to say before your child leaves the house. This is your baby after all! But you have given your teen a lifetime of knowledge, imparted countless wisdom on them, and have taken more steps than you realize in getting them ready for this very moment. Relax, take a deep breath, and enjoy this time.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Jennifer Miller, Author, Confident Parents, Confident Kids, and Marjorie Savage, Education Specialist, University of Minnesota.