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Four Ways to Help Your Disorganized Teens Transition to College

The transition to college life can be exciting and rewarding, while at the same time stressful and nerve-wracking — for students and parents alike. For many teens, especially those with learning differences or struggling with mental health issues, the level of independence and responsibility required can feel overwhelming.

We convened New York City-area medical, psychological and educational professionals for their insights on helping disorganized teens prepare for college. Their main recommendations include:

1. Scaffold responsibilities well ahead of the transition to college

“Your teen will be taking responsibility for their own lives in a very different way than they have before this point,” says Marcie Schneider, MD, FAAP, FSAHM, of Greenwich Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine. “Many kids come back and say, ‘You didn’t tell me it was such a big transition.’”

The scaffolding approach is about building blocks, meaning that parents should encourage their children to progressively take ownership and responsibility for their daily lives. It is important for students to feel successful as they reach for independence, which is why it’s important to support them in that transition and to scale back over time. Students should also be encouraged to learn from their mistakes.

“Growing up is not easy, and it takes one day at a time,” Sharon Thomas, founder and director of MAIA Education Resource Center, reminds parents. She points out that we tend to learn best when there’s a natural consequence. “What is in this transition that’s an opportunity for growth? It’s not going to be perfect.”

Hilary Cooper, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Westchester County, points out that it’s better for parents to ask their teen what they need instead of automatically taking care of needs for the child.

Before the start of college, have your teen make a list of what he thinks he needs to do, including forms that need to be filled out and items that need to be purchased. You and your child can review and split up the list and determine a deadline to complete the tasks. “If you don’t have that kind of relationship with your child, that’s OK … see if there’s another adult who can do this with them,” Dr. Cooper notes.

2. Build a family plan to support your teen

While going to college is a very exciting step, Dr. Cooper cautions parents to be “middle of the road” in regards to how they talk about the transition. “There’s not a kid going off to college who doesn’t hit a dip,” she notes. After being told that this is supposed to be the best time of their lives, teens will then question, “What’s wrong with me?”

To help your teens emotionally through this tradition, Dr. Cooper suggests the following:

  • Discuss how communicative your teen would like you to be. Does she prefer text, FaceTime or phone calls? Would it work to schedule regular times to connect?

  • Ask a trusted adult to have open lines of communication with your child. This could be another family member, childhood babysitter, or another adult with whom your child has a relationship built on trust. Ask this person to regularly and casually check in with your teen to see how she’s doing.

  • Plan for scheduled visits outside of Parents’ Weekend. “If you go over Parents Weekend, you’re not going to get a true sense of how your teen is doing.” She suggests scheduling a visit during the middle of the week to really see how your child is faring.

3. Prepare them to be accountable for their own health and medical care

“I often say that it’s a cruel joke that we send them off at age 18,” Dr. Cooper says. “In some ways, their brains are going through many more changes at this age than they did a couple of years ago. You’re combining these new expectations of adulthood with this perfect storm biologically … I find that almost every kid regresses a bit before going off to college.”

For students needing mental health support during this transition, encourage your teen to reach out to the college counseling office. Depending on counselor availability, you or your teen may want to request a list of mental health providers in the community. If your child has an established relationship with a therapist at home, check to see if teletherapy is an option (however, note that this can be complicated due to licensure requirements in each state).

Responsibility for one’s own medical care, including medications, is one area to employ a scaffolding approach. “If a teen is on medications, it’s important that Mom isn’t the one delivering medicines anymore,” Dr. Schneider says. “You shouldn’t be shipping medications to your child at college.”

Based on her experience providing medical care for young adults and as a parent, Dr. Schneider recommends the following:

  • Make sure that your teen has contact information for his doctors, dentist and any other healthcare or mental health care providers.

  • Keep track of medications (both prescription and over-the-counter) regularly taken and make sure that your teen has a full supply for the first month.

  • When it’s time for a refill, resist the urge to take care of this for your child and urge him to take care of this task himself.

  • Discuss whether your child should sign a form to allow for medical providers to discuss information with you. Keep in mind that once a child reaches 18, he or she is considered to be an adult. Healthcare providers are not legally able to share any information unless a medical proxy, healthcare power of attorney or other appropriate form has been signed.

  • When you bring your teen to college, make sure that he knows where the campus student health services clinic is located.

During pre-college visits, Dr. Schneider also addresses health and safety topics such as:

  • Being hypervigilant while accepting drinks (including nonalcoholic) from others, especially during the period of September–December, during which time students are still establishing friendships and figuring out whom they can trust.

  • Nutrition — food options at college are much different than at home, and many teens’ eating habits change dramatically during this time. Because of this Dr. Schneider recommends that college students take vitamins.

  • Making a plan for regular exercise — “If they don’t plan for it, odds are that it’s not going to happen,” Dr. Schneider says.

While you as the parent will likely no longer be involved in a doctor-teen appointment, you may want to find out what topics your child’s pediatrician will be addressing.

4. Know what evaluations and documentation are needed for services

If your child currently receives accommodations or support for learning differences and/or other conditions, consider what services may be needed in college. For students with psycho-educational evaluations, they will likely need new testing based on an adult-norm battery of tests, according to Dr. Cooper. Colleges will require that students over the age of 18 needing accommodations have a current psycho-educational evaluation using adult standards.

For students deciding between colleges, Dr. Cooper suggests researching how receptive the school and professors are to accommodations on

Often academic and school/college placement counselors partner with rising college students to plan ahead for accommodations and support services needed in college. Together, they can work through a checklist with action items for teens to encourage independence and self-advocacy.

Growing Pains = Opportunities for Growth

While teens by 18 are legally adults, the frontal lobe is not fully developed yet, and there will be many more years until they can completely take charge. Ms. Thomas challenges parents to ask themselves this question: “How can I be supportive as a parent without taking away the opportunity my child has to grow?”


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