Preparing Your Student For College

Upper School Counselor David Hotaling welcomed parents to Blanke Room this week for a session called Adulting 101: Developing your teens‘ skills and resilience to maintain well-being. Dr. Jodi Seals, Health Promotion Specialist at Washington University was the guest speaker and offered parents helpful tips to ensure teenage students are prepared to be young adults when they leave home after high school, and how to help from afar once they’re living at college.

Dr. Seals was lighthearted and engaging, and shared her own experiences as a parent and as a college staffer who frequently interacts with and helps young adults on campus. She began by stressing the importance of learning how to say, „No.“ The first six weeks of school are critical for college freshmen, and if it’s hard to say no to the little things, it’s much harder to say no to the big ones. „NO“ your limits, she said. Dr. Seals had all the parents stand up, introduce themselves to someone they don’t know, and take turns asking to shake hands. Each parent had to practice saying, „No.“ It was clear that saying no is uncomfortable for many, even in a safe setting. „You must say no, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so,“ Dr. Seals said. There are societal constructs that we tend to rely on, and we’ve learned that saying yes is positive. „I want someone to like me, so I will say yes.“ Saying no may cause the other person to be uncomfortable and to question, „Did I say something wrong? Why don’t they like me?“ It’s in our human nature to make others comfortable, but we must overcome this to establish and protect the personal boundaries that ensure we feel safe and comfortable ourselves.

Boundaries Are Important

  • Healthy boundaries help us navigate relationships.
  • They are an essential part of self care.
  • Communication is key.
  • Boundaries protect your own wellbeing.
  • Establishing your own boundaries models healthy boundaries to others.

College experiences, said Dr. Seal, should be enjoyable for the most part. But they’re also uncomfortable and sometimes even unmanageable. There’s a myth that high school and college should be a stress free experience. „We need to change that narrative a little bit,“ said Dr. Seals. „Things can be stressful and wonderful. We hope that our experiences as adults will be enjoyable for the most part, but there are going to be experiences that are uncomfortable, and that’s how we grow. And there will be some that are unmanageable and that’s where our resources come in. Use the professional folks. If we do a better job of telling students what to expect with regard to sometimes experiences being uncomfortable and sometimes unmanageable, it won’t hit them so hard when it happens.“

Stress isn’t always negative. There is actually a level of stress that is healthy. Dr. Seals spoke about stress in the wild, giving an example of a cheetah chasing its prey. The prey experiences the stress of impending death; the cheetah: hunger and survival. Animals, like humans, experience stress on a regular basis. The difference is that human adults hold on to our stress, we overprocess it, we keep going back to it. This habit keeps us perpetually in a stressful state. In the wild, animals are eating, then they’re being chased, then, if they outrun their hunter, they simply go right back to eating, or back to their baseline. „We can learn a lot in the stress response of others versus staying stuck in our own,“ said Dr. Seals.

How to Help

Dr. Seals said that, starting in middle and high school, it’s important to be a resource for your children but don’t do everything for them. „That doesn’t help them the next time they face a problem,“ she said. How can parents be resources for their college students? She offers some helpful tips:

  • Maintain open dialogue. Always be accepting of what they have to say.
  • Keep lines of communication open. Dr. Seals stresses the importance of regular voice and/or video calls. „You can hear things in their voice, really hear it from them,“ she said. „Texts are ok for quick conversations, but make time for the calls, too. Facetime is great, too, so you can see them.“ She advises setting aside time for a Sunday afternoon Facetime or Zoom call for the family. „It’s a great way for everyone to connect and see each other.“
  • Encourage healthy habits and social connections. Eating is important, both what you’re eating and that you’re eating regularly to fuel your body. „If you’re hungry, eat something, regardless of the time,“ she advised. „That can impact how anxious you are, how you’re feeling about things.“ Move your body, too. It doesn’t have to be in a gym; getting outside and walking around is great. Green space impacts your mental health, as does fresh air. Social connection is vital. „We know the value. Students, even living in a res hall, can be lonely.“ Dr. Seals stresses that parents do not need to have all the answers. Simply saying, „I’m sorry you’re feeling that way“ can mean so much. „Students sometimes just appreciate understanding, and sitting in the uncomfortability, that can go a long way,“ she said. It’s also important to establish what your student’s needs are up front. „Are you looking for me to give you advice, or do you just want me to listen?“ Nine times out of ten with college students, they just want to be listened to. Ask, „What have you tried, and what would you like to try next?“ This dialogue them move to the next level and get unstuck from the stress and uncertainty.
  • Be familiar with resources on campus. „As your kids leave the nest, do some Googling and find out where would they go if they’re in crisis. Tons of resources can be overwhelming to both students and parents in the moment, so if you have a good understanding of what resources are available up front, you can direct them to what is most appropriate for them. There are different modes and options available.
  • Follow your student’s university organizations social media. „Follow the dean of students, the health center, housing, the rec center. They can give you information so if your student is struggling, you are empowered to help because you have some of that information.“ She also advises signing up for the university’s emergency alerts, if possible, so if something happens on campus you can be made aware of it.
  • Start small now. Regardless of what age your child is, allow them to start doing some things on their own like going to a doctor’s appointment by themselves.“It could not go well but that’s ok, because we learn from that as well. If they haven’t done that and they get to college, it can cause a lot of stress and they can really be a difficult transition to go from tons of structure to no structure,“ said Dr. Seals.
  • Normalize mistakes—give them space to make their own. Dr. Seals said it can be helpful for parents to share their own mistakes, so students learn that mistakes are normal, often unpreventable, and recoverable. Saying, „When I was a student I really messed up…“ can help tremendously. „If we don’t do that, they’re looking at us every day, saying, ‚I can’t make any mistakes‘ because they don’t know that you have. You’re not lecturing them; you’re just sharing your experience. Mistakes will happen, but you’ve been vulnerable with them so they can be vulnerable with you.“

Dr. Seals showed a brief video with Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult. In it, Haims has three recommendations:

  • Stop using the word „we“ when it comes to our children. We aren’t on the soccer team and we aren’t applying to college and we aren’t working on a science project. These are your child’s experiences, not yours.
  • Teach them to talk to adults. Stop questioning the adults in their lives. It is better for our kids to learn to advocate for themselves. Our kids need to have that capacity, and childhood offers opportunities to practice that.
  • Stop doing their work. Let them do their own work.

It’s important to seek out opportunities to put independence in our kids‘ way. Ask them to do errands and be home alone, to be responsible and make their own food and use public transportation and manage their deadlines and do their homework. „It’s our job as parents to put ourselves out of a job. That’s the only way we’ll know that we’ve raised an adult,“ said Lythcott-Haims.

Imposter Syndrome

Dr. Seals spoke about imposter syndrome, and how everyone experiences it at one point or another. Students heading to college often manifest this by questioning themselves. „Am I good enough to go to college? Am I smart enough?“ Perhaps they’ve done well in high school and then they get to a place where everyone has done well and is at the top of their class. That can be stressful. We must work to normalize students to expect that. Here are some tips to combat Imposter Syndrome:

  • Build a culture of support.
  • Invest in yourself.
  • Find your people/mentor.
  • Write down successes/failures (and how you overcame them).
  • Take a compliment – and give them to others!
  • Break up with social media.Lower your expectations.
  • Be vulnerable and authentic.

What are you watering?

Dr. Seals offered a metaphor of a garden and a watering can: different things take different amounts of energy. Classes, practice, relationships, family, and work all require care and feeding. At some point, though, you must refill the watering can. „At different times of year, different plants take a different amount of water,“ said Dr. Seal. „The key is to know when the watering can is empty.“ She noted that we can often tell if our watering cans are empty because we become short-tempered and easily frustrated by others. „We do that with folks we love more than friends and coworkers, because they’ll always love us,“ she noted. „How do you refill it? What do you use to refill it? Exercise, going to a movie, knitting, spending time with animals…whatever that is for your student, they should recognize it and use it to refill their watering cans.“ She encouraged parents to guide their students to this knowledge by asking questions: What’s the best way you found to relax? What do you need? She also recommended limiting some things like watching television to a certain amount of time, but we should be normalizing that it’s fine to take a break, that our brains need these breaks.

Sleep is Essential

Dr. Seals stressed that good sleep is essential, and offered 10 tips for better sleep:

  • Maintain a consistent daily schedule; don’t have drastic differences day-to-day.
  • Reduce your daily caffeine intake.
  • Turn off the computer or television.
  • Don’t go to bed on a full stomach.
  • Don’t go to bed on an empty stomach.
  • Engage in regular exercise.
  • Limit beverage consumption before bed.
  • Keep your bedroom dark and quiet.
  • Invest in a comfortable experience with pillows and bedding.
  • Use your internal alarm clock when you can (instead of setting an alarm).

For students going to college and perhaps living with others for the first time, it’s imperative to talk wth roommates about sleep habits and study habits. Establish an agreed time for lights off, whether a sound machine can be used, etc. A roommate agreement contract can force those conversations and ensure everyone is on the same page. Sleep masks and headphones you can sleep in are great options for blocking out light and noise when trying to sleep.

Breathing exercises

Dr. Seal recommended students exploring meditation classes on campus, or finding resources to guide them through meditative breathing exercises. Students who engage in these practices report lower levels of stress and anxiety, improved sleep, and better overall health and wellbeing.

If a student is in crisisWhere do students seek assistance? Friends and family are almost always the first place students turn. They do a lot of outreach with peers, and they are still looking to parents for that help. „Be the warm handoff,“ Dr. Seal advised. „Don’t become their counselor, but help them as a support system and making sure they are making the connection to the professional help they need.“ She offered some tips on appropriate ways to express concern:

  • Stay calm.
  • Let them feel heard and emphasize you want to help.
  • Give them your full attention.
  • Focus on specific, observable behaviors.
  • Utilize silence (if you stay silent, they will fill the space).
  • Validate with the student says.

She also gave some gentle ways parents can open the conversation with students who may be struggling: „I’ve noticed that you haven’t been yourself lately. Is everything all right?“ and „I’ve noticed that you missed a couple classes. How are you doing?“

Thank you to Mr. Hotaling and Dr. Seals for this informative session on preparing our students for life beyond high school!