The whole world is about to change. School’s out and university – the next big step on the path to adulting – can feel like a different planet. It’s the ultimate drop from a comfort zone and into a deep pool of what-ifs and what’s next. Even the most confident of teenagers may get nervous at this time.
“The transition can be tricky for some going from the big fish in a little pond to being a small fish in the big wide world,” explains Kim Henderson, Psychologist at German Neuroscience Center. Here’s a look at how teens – and their parents – can get ready to stretch the umbilical connect over the summer and get the freshmen and women ready for their new roles.
Is fear normal?
Yes, it’s the most commonly felt emotion at this time. Tanya Dharamshi, Clinical Director and Counselling Psychologist, Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai, says: “It is very common for teens to experience a lack of confidence and belief in themselves at this time. Many will be leaving what they consider to be a safe, secure and familiar environment, surrounded by friends and teachers they have known for the past five years or more, to go to a completely new, alien environment and people. They may doubt their abilities and even likeability as they try to navigate their way in the early weeks of the new term. Feelings of anxiety, insecurity and self-doubt are extremely common.
Encourage your child to help process their feelings by getting things off their chest and writing their worries down. Accept and validate that they have fears and worries, like adults, but help them find ways to shift focus and not allow the fear and worry to define their thoughts.
“Those who have never lived away from home before may find this aspect equally as stressful and feel they are inadequate to cope or succeed away from their home comforts. Having such a huge amount of independence can seem especially daunting for many. Learning basic independent living skills will help manage some of those anxieties.”
How can parents help alleviate nerves?
Parents should normalise talking about fears and anxiety, say experts. “Try to discuss with your child about advocating for themselves and [explain] that asking for help during stressful times is not shameful or 'weak'. The ability to ask for help is a sign of strength and a healthy coping strategy," explains Henderson.
Dharamshi,, meanwhile calls for a ‘Worry Box’. She says, “Encourage your child to help process their feelings by getting things off their chest and writing their worries down. Accept and validate that they have fears and worries, like adults, but help them find ways to shift focus and not allow the fear and worry to define their thoughts.”
She also calls for distraction, after all mindfulness – or engaging whole heartedly with a current situation – can keep you focused on being ‘present’.
How can parents help make the transition from school to college smooth?
Dharamshi calls for communication – and to not allow that overpowering parental instinct to take control of the situation; it’s time for the kids to take charge. She says:
1. Listen to their fears and concerns. Let them know you are there to help them at this important stage in their life, whether it’s in person, over the phone, via Zoom, etc. In the digital age, there can be no excuse for a lack of communication.
2. Resist the urge to take control. They need space to grow and figure things out themselves. Let them work out what they need to pack, their new routine or timetable, etc. No matter how tempting, do not try to take-over and do everything for them.
3. Gather information about what to expect. Much of the anxiety in transitioning to university/college is from knowing that this is a time of significant changes, but not knowing exactly what those changes are going to look and feel like. Try to get as much information as you can about the academic challenges, social life and culture of the college/university they are going to. Reach out to current students you may know, student services departments or student unions.
4. Recharge relationships. Many teens will have been very busy studying over the last year and not had time to focus on relationships. Spend time with family and friends over the summer break. This will help you have positive memories and a freshly charged-up support network. Family support and healthy relationships are one of the most consistent factors promoting mental health resilience
You only do college once and the marketable skills you will learn while having fun will shine through far more in an interview than talking about something that you put up with for a tag line in your CV.
Henderson believes that it’s important to talk about your child’s interests: “Remind your children to do things that you like not what looks good on your resume. It’s so easy to get caught up in the 'right' elective subjects or the 'right' extra curriculars. Take the subjects and classes that you love because that is far more important to have fun and enjoy what you are doing. You only do college once and the marketable skills you will learn while having fun will shine through far more in an interview than talking about something that you put up with for a tag line in your CV.” This will also generate interest and excitement for the period ahead and so stem nervousness.
Practical tips and tricks for anxious teens
Dharamshi offers some practical exercises for teens:
- Try breathing exercises: Breathe in for 4 seconds (slow count of 4) and breathe out over 6 seconds (slow count to 6) for a few minutes at a time, as many times a day as you can.
- Focus on sleep and nutrition: Most teenagers need 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep a day.
- Familiarise yourself with the campus: This will help you find your lectures in a hurry and also give you a sense of being in control and belonging.
- Join one or more society or club: This will help to build friendships as well as to help you feel included and that you ‘belong’ to the new college/university.
- Get outdoors: Exercise and getting outdoors helps to release ‘feel good’ chemicals in our brain, crucial for maintaining positive mental health.
What if my teen is depressed – what are the signs I should look for?
Some common signs that your teen is overwhelmed at the changes afoot are:
- Sleep problems – trouble falling asleep or waking up early
- Appetite changes – both reduced or increased appetite
- Appearing withdrawn or isolating themselves from others
- Not talking about, or avoiding talking about, the impending move
- Irritable or grumpy mood
- Becoming easily tired
- Not enjoying usual activities
Dharamshi says that first the parents should try to talk to their child in a non-judgemental manner. If their child is unwilling or unable to explain what’s going on, they could bring up the topic of transition and ask if it could be a factor. Parents are also usually anxious themselves, and sharing this can normalise the experience and create the space for a conversation.
If the difficulties seem more severe, however, the best option is to seek advice from a professional.
Parents' advice to their kids as they head to university
Discover who you really are, confident in the knowledge you have us.
Italian expat in the UAE Simona Spazzini Galli, who has an 18-year-old daughter who will be headed to university abroad in the Fall, has this advice for her child: “The university years are the years that you have the chance to find yourself, to decide who you want to be intellectually, find what you want to do professionally, how do you want to be socially, so you’re probably in the time in your life when you are least influenced by parents [and] colleagues.
"You are in the university of your choice, in the country of your choice, studying the topic of your choice, and you should let yourself be free to explore within intellectual capacity not only studies but also different kinds of people, different kinds of intellectual pursuits, different kinds of ideas. Think of us as a point of reference, a benchmark, something you can go back to if you are confused or overwhelmed. I’m hoping that the teachings from us as a family will remain as a core and then she branches out and explores different worlds, different things, but always goes back to the core values we instilled into her during her growing up with us.”
“Give everything your best effort – always”
Indian expat Jasbir Bindra has this advice for his daughter, Avneet Bindra, who’s headed to college:
“Pursue your passion. When you are studying, select courses and subjects that you think you’ll enjoy because that will make you passionate about those courses and you’ll do well. Because I find that a lot of people try and do what others are doing or what their parents are telling them to do [and] sometimes they may not be interested [in that subject].
“When [you] graduate, [you] start working, try and work with a view to become financially independent as soon as possible, because that then gives you the freedom to do what you want. You can then pursue your interests, you can do the job that you like. I don’t think many people get taught that – to become financially independent at a young age.
“Always give your best. The work that you give should be of the best quality that you can produce. Don’t try and do things that are mediocre because then you’ll be compared with other people and it will not show you in a good light. So always, from your own perspective, do the best that you can and produce the best quality work. That will always stand you in good stead and make sure that you succeed in what you do.”