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Transitioning to College: It doesn’t start in the fall

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Student trying to find something in his bagThough most kids who are going off to college won’t be leaving for a handful of months, at this point in time they are likely deciding (or have recently decided) where they are actually going to be attending college. Once that decision is made, there are many other aspects of this transition that then require attention in the coming months (i.e. housing forms, meal plan decisions, course registration, financial/scholarship applications, etc.).

As the ball gets rolling, the reality of this future transition begins to solidify itself as decisions continue to get made. Though the actual transition will not likely occur for another 6 or 7 months, the emotions (positive and negative) and anxieties around the transition can begin percolating at this time.

Because of these percolating emotions, there is an opportunity for early discussion around the transition. There is a reason why “the system” isn’t designed for kids to leave for school a day after they learn they have been accepted somewhere: that’s arguably too much to adapt to in too short of a period of time. The fact that this process of leaving for college can sometimes take almost a year from applying to settling into the dorms gives everyone an opportunity to talk about, explore, and prepare for these changes before they actually occur.

Today’s insights on how to begin handling and discussing this transition before it occurs come from Family Institute therapist Amy Drucker, MSFMT, AMFT.



Get excited — but think about what’s scary too.

Kids who are leaving for college are likely very excited, and simultaneously very nervous about the big step. Given that they have time to process and prepare for this new chapter, it’s helpful for them to start thinking about what they are most fearful about, as well as what can they anticipate they may need to help make this transition go as smooth as possible — what do they need to make themselves feel cozy and safe when they leave.

Alternately, going to college is such an exciting and thrilling time! Once they know where they are going to school, they can start researching the happenings on campus, intramural activities, maybe familiarize themselves with fun things to do in the city or area they are moving to. Sparking interest and getting excited about their departure and what they will have opportunities to get involved in or experience can go a long way in helping them adjust with greater ease to their new environment when they arrive.

There’s also the issue of good old senioritis to consider. Senioritis marks the beginning stages of this transition, so there is some level of normalcy in the perceived apathy that seniors exhibit in the last months of their high school career as they start thinking about their future and changes that await them. Students certainly shouldn’t “slack off,” but through these last few months of high school, students are (whether consciously or not) navigating some new level of independence and taking responsibility for themselves — if that means they fall a little behind and realize what skills they need to cultivate to catch up or practice better time management, then so be it.

It should also be noted that many seniors do not exhibit any signs of senioritis. In either case, this time is a normal part of the beginning phase of this transition from high school to college.


Parents have their own anxiety about the transition—whether it’s their first or last child going to college.

Parents, whether sending off their first or last child to school, experience a lot of anxiety about their soon-to-be legal adult’s safety (amongst a myriad of other things). There are many things that parents do for their children when they are under their roof that they simply will not be able to continue to do when their child leaves. Beginning to step back from some of those things (even something like doing their laundry — teach your son or daughter how to do their laundry!) and allowing their child to start cultivating some more independence will go a long way in empowering their sons or daughters before they leave.

Also, parents tend to fear for their sons’ and daughters’ safety on college campuses. In preparation, parents should educate themselves on the resources (emergency and voluntary) available at the university. Sitting down with their sons or daughters to provide them with these resources and have a discussion (not a lecture!) with them about how they can be proactive and preventative in keeping themselves and others safe (don’t travel alone, don’t travel alone at night, know what resources are available — from mental health to safe ride options) can help assuage anxieties.

Additionally, parents and students should come up with a realistic and agreed upon plan for communication once the transition takes place: A phone call every day? Every few days? Texts? For parents, not communicating with their child and thus feeling like they don’t know what is going on with them or if they are safe is arguably the facet of this transition that can contribute to most anxiety. A plan of communication helps ease anxieties and lays the foundation for the beginning of a new relationship between parent and their young adult child.


Remember that siblings are impacted too.

Siblings are a unique facet of this transition and often their feelings aren’t addressed (not intentionally, they just seem to be overlooked) — but this is a very major transition for them too. They may be the only ones left in the house, or they may have a really close bond with their brother or sister and them leaving is going to be a great loss, or perhaps some siblings are so young they don’t even recognize what is going on. Discussing with siblings a. the fact that the transition is happening, b. how they feel about it, and c. what (if any) their concerns are regarding it, etc. are helpful things to explore.


Bottom line, there are plenty of things to do now and in the months prior to freshman orientation that can exponentially improve everyone’s experience around the transition when it actually takes place.

Simultaneously, it is important to remain in the present and enjoy the time that the family unit has together. When we spend so much time thinking about the future, we miss out on what is happening now. There is a certain degree of preparation, discussion, and planning that can and should begin to happen, but be mindful of not letting it take you so far into the future that you miss these present moments and these opportunities.



Amy Drucker is an associate Marriage and Family therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern. To read her full bio or make an appointment, please visit our website.


The Family Institute offers affordable counseling throughout the Chicagoland area. To learn more about our therapy and mental health services, please visit our website.


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