As senior year of high school comes to a close, so do the parties and proms. Usually during the last weeks of summer, fear, anxiety, and excitement set in about the year to come. If you're the proud parent of a college-bound kid, you might be worried about the responsibilities and freedoms they are about to take on. While there are steps you can take to help prepare your kid for what's to come, you don't want to come off as overbearing or controlling, do you?
One of the biggest challenges for parents is letting go when their kids first leave home. "It's about walking that fine line between helping your kids and at the same time letting them grow as adults," says Melissa Kenzig, a certified health education expert and the director of the health education program at Columbia University in New York.
"Parents often want to let go but are scared they haven't prepared their kids well enough. In most cases, they haven't," says Susan Rothstein, who is the co-founder of the Captio Corp. and the College Case, a tool that helps students take control of and organize their lives.
The good news is you can pack more than clothing and school supplies into the weeks leading up to freshman orientation. Start by taking an organized approach to the information and topics that you need to cover before they hug you good-bye and have them store important information in one easily accessible place. From going over financial and medical information to talking about sex and drugs, here's the lowdown on what to cover from several experts who spoke to WebMD.
Let's Talk About Sex
"This idea that there is a sexual liberation that goes on at college campuses is an imaginary one," says Patricia Fabiano, PhD, who is the director of Prevention and Wellness Services at Western Washington University in Bellingham. Unfortunately, she says, it's an idea that most students and parents subscribe to.
According to Fabiano, about 28% of students surveyed in 2003 by the American College Health Association (ACHA) say they've never had a sexual partner. In addition, about 46% of the nearly 20,000 students surveyed said they'd had only one sexual partner in the last year.
While the great majority of students don't have multiple sex partners, a lot of students are going to have sexual relationships at college, and for many it will be their first time.
"It's important to keep the lines of communication open, especially during the first year of college," says Kenzig. Hopefully, you've talked to your kids about safer sex; however, some students might not want to involve their parents when it comes to sexual health issues, and you might be more than willing to respect their privacy. That's why on-campus resources are so important.
Part of the health program at Columbia is an online service called Go Ask Alice!, where students and parents from all over the country -- including you -- can ask questions about anything from sex to drugs and alcohol, relationships, and more.
Most schools offer health services that include birth control and testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Students over 18 need to give written permission for the college to share any medical information, or even notify parents when students are ill.
Drugs and Alcohol on Campus
"Because of the way their brains are wired, college students are more susceptible to overuse of drugs or alcohol, which can lead to extremely serious problems," says David Fassler, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist. He says college students can consume greater quantities of drugs and alcohol than adults and often appear to be able to better function than adults, even when very impaired.
Parents might be relieved to know, however, that most students don't abuse drugs or alcohol, says Fabiano. A history of drug or alcohol problems within the family will increase the likelihood that your kid will develop problems. That's why Fabiano says you should never glorify your old drinking days if you had them.
If they do screw up, don't panic. Fabiano says that tripping early in the college career is often a part of exploration and a newfound sense of independence. That doesn't mean that you should turn a blind eye, however, if you suspect your kid is in the midst of a drug or alcohol problem.
Educating your kid before they leave may be your best defense against drug or alcohol abuse. Letting them know about the risks of partying too hard -- alcohol poisoning or drunk driving, for example -- will better prepare them. Rothstein says frequently colleges and universities send educational information concerning drugs and alcohol home before the school year starts. Some students are even asked to complete a program online and a knowledge quiz. The Minnesota Institute of Public Health, for example, designed an information brochure for schools to use, which you can download or read online.
When Depression Rears Its Ugly Head
"In recent years, we've seen a significant increase in mental health issues and problems among college students," says Fassler. The most recent data from the ACHA show an increase in depression among college students over the last three years. In 2003, almost 16% of females and 8.5% of males reported ever getting diagnosed with depression.
One reason, Fassler says, is that unlike previous generations, more students with existing chronic conditions are getting treatment during high school and are mentally able to go on to college. If your kid is currently undergoing mental health treatment, make sure they continue their care and/or medications.
For students who develop depressive symptoms after they start college, stress and isolation are often to blame. "College is often the first time they've been away from home and their established support system," says Fassler, who works with the Walden Behavioral Care LLC in Waltham, Mass., a clinic that specializes in treating college students.
As a result, not all symptoms spell a major depressive disorder. Often, students experience homesick feelings or face social challenges -- not liking their roommate, for example -- that make the initial months of college especially challenging. It's normal for students to change and grow -- and have some difficulties -- during their first year of college, but you should keep an eye and ear out for what Kenzig describes as a significant change in attitude. Your kids may require help if they are experiencing extreme mood swings, feelings of sadness or hopelessness, a loss of interest in things they once loved, loss of appetite, or significant changes in sleep patterns.
The problem for many parents, says Fassler, is that they might not have any idea their kid is having a problem. "The key is for parents to let their kids know that they can talk to them about any problems they may have. You should sit down and have an honest discussion about the challenges of college before they leave home."
Luckily there are a lot of resources for students, says Fabiano. Students should be encouraged to reach out not only to friends, but to professors, resident advisors, and counselors. Most colleges and universities will offer counseling; however, some may be understaffed, says Fassler. When necessary, consider off-campus mental health services; most schools will offer referrals.
The 'Freshman 15'
We've all heard that after pizza binges and midnight snacks, students inevitably gain about 15 pounds their first semester. While this isn't always the case -- some students even lose weight -- a lot of students adopt unhealthy eating habits and skip exercise altogether. In fact, Fabiano says most students don't get the recommended minimum amount of exercise -- about 20 to 30 minutes, three times a week. Students are paying the price; data from the ACHA survey showed that 30% of students are overweight.
Weight gain, however, might be a natural part of your kid's growth, says Kenzig. "It's also the first time they're responsible for their own food intake. Navigating all of the options, and choosing the healthiest ones, is a difficult road for some students to walk."
But weight gain isn't the only issue, as some students will develop eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. A lot of campuses do offer support groups and counseling for these types of problems, and if you suspect your student has a problem, encourage them to get help.
After leaving for college, Rothstein's son lost his wallet, something most of us experience at some point in our lives. One of the things in the CollegeCase, which she created along with Diane Brandt, is a place to keep photocopies of the contents of your wallet, something she recommends all students do.
The CollegeCase has numerous slots for important financial information, which helps put students in charge, says Rothstein.
Your kids are likely to first set up a checking account in the area. Have them look for a student account that has no fees or minimum balance requirements. They should learn about how to protect their accounts, check statements, balance their checkbooks, and keep copies of financial records before they go to school.
Let your kids know how important it is that they pay their bills on time. After all, skipping payments can cause problems with their credit rating, in addition to late fees, consequences most college students don't consider.
Sharing General Health Information
"We all think that being a good parent is hovering over our children when it comes to their health," says Rothstein. Yet college is a time to hand over the reins and to share general information about things like what over-the-counter medications they usually take or which prescriptions they need to refill. Your kids should also know their medical history and have the names and contact information for their doctors.
Rothstein also suggests that you go over their insurance policy with them so they understand the rules and regulations. That way you won't get slapped with a huge bill for avoidable charges if your kid fails to follow the protocol required by your company, like getting a referral prior to visiting a doctor.
It's important for students not to rush into intimacy, and instead get to know people gradually, says Fabiano. Most sexual assaults on campus occur among acquaintances, not strangers. Encourage your kids to do things in groups, especially during the first weeks of school. Tell them to avoid walking alone at night; many schools offer student escort services.
Support is the key to surviving most of the problems or issues that students face in college. Whether from family, faculty members, or counselors, encourage your kids to avoid isolation. "Make sure they can talk to you," says Fabiano. "It's really connectedness and social support that are important."
Published Aug. 9, 2004.