The Late Teen Years: How to Help Teens Thrive as They Go Off to College
Just as with other stages of a child's life, parents can make a difference in their child's late teen years. Studies on the impact of parenting practices suggest that effective parents follow 4 basic principles. First, effective parents take actions that establish and maintain a positive relationship with their children. Next, effective parents balance the positive contacts by providing effective guidance and using appropriate discipline with their children. Having a good grasp of the challenges that children and teens encounter during a phase of development is the third key of effective parents. And, finally, effective parents help their children obtain skills to address the challenges that they will face. From infancy through young adulthood, parents that engage in actions that follow all four principles have children that are better adjusted, happier, and more successful in social, emotional, and learning endeavors.
Thoughtful parents can use these principles to guide their actions at the end of their child's teen years as well as earlier stages. As children move on to college, parents can provide assistance to their children even in the face of the typical nervousness, concerns about loneliness and homesickness, and new freedoms and responsibilities. When kids are getting ready to leave home for extended periods of time you can take steps that will make their experience much more fulfilling and successful.
Let's address some of the major issues to help you be prepared and in turn get your child prepared for the college years.
Applying Principle 1: Establishing and Maintaining a Positive Relationship: The Challenges of a New Phase in the Relationship
To maintain a positive relationship with a college-aged child leaving home, parents have to be supportive, but at a distance. Teens want to be independent; they do not want parents to be concerned with all the details of their lives. Parents have to figure out how to stay close through talking to their teen, asking if their teen is ready to listen to some advice or ideas, and keeping their own urge to talk, see the teen, or send a note in reasonable check. Teens are likely to retreat if parents demand frequent contacts in repeated, lengthy conversations about serious topics. In fact, it can be helpful for parents to ask teens to let them know if they are feeling smothered or annoyed by the contact. Honest discussion of these concerns will help establish comfortable boundaries and foster closeness rather than harm the relationship.
Communication is an essential component in maintaining a positive relationship. As a family you need to consider how, how often, and with what method you are going to communicate. The variety of methods available today presents families with a myriad of choices. Most colleges provide students with e-mail accounts, which present numerous web-based possibilities. Contact through e-mail messages, instant messages, and sometimes, video chats are options to be considered. Phone communication through landlines and cell phones are usually available as well. Leaving messages through voice mail, text messages, and direct talking can keep channels open. However, you want to negotiate the ways and the frequency with which you are going to communicate before school starts. Establish a means that allows you and your child to be in touch about routine events, just to keep your relationship growing, as well as during times when questions need to be answered or concerns have to be addressed. Emergency contact methods also have to be worked out.
The main issues with communication involve the frequency of contact, the reasons for contact, who initiates contact, and when someone has to return a contact. Parents often find themselves chasing their children, trying to get them to call back. Having a set time for contact on an agreed-upon schedule helps reduce that problem. Additionally, some rules about when a child must return contacts should also be put in place. As a student and parents are adjusting to the new situation, contact every other day may be appropriate, but after the first few weeks, connection 2 times a week is probably more realistic.
As you negotiate these plans, remember that you are facing a new situation and navigating a new phase in your relationship. Your child will need some time alone to establish college relationships and a schedule that fits the demands for school and leisure pursuits. On your side you need to get used to this new phase in your relationship. You are no longer going to be involved in many of your child's daily experiences in the way you were before. As a result, you may find yourself feeling lonely, worried, and underutilized. If you experience these reactions, be careful. You should not respond to these feelings each time by getting on the phone or leaving a voice mail or e-mail. Although you may believe that the way to handle these feelings is to reach out to your child, it may not be the best way in the long run. As you and your child are confronted with this new developmental challenge, you both need as many resources and as much time as possible to develop skills for managing that challenge. If you don't find ways to reassure yourself that your child is most likely doing fine or reducing your feelings of missing him/her in other ways, you may not grow into an effective parent who can be an adviser to your child. Worse yet, not only will your growth be hindered, but your child's may be as well. Older kids who are away from home for extended periods of time or who are establishing new homes need time to work on their feelings of loneliness and develop their new social network and friendships. Overly frequent contacts from you may prevent them from confronting those challenges and leave them less effective. Most people are extremely capable and adaptable. Millions of parents and kids have met this challenge before, and you and your child will be able to meet it as well.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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