Understanding the Transition to College
Although no individual student and their family experience the transition to college in the same way, there are some changes and adjustments that are common. In this section, Student Counseling & Psychological Services (SCPS) has included information that might assist you in the prevention of potential problems, as well as assist you in dealing with issues that do arise in your student’s college experience.
Changes You Might Anticipate
Parents report the experience of sending a son or daughter to college as one filled with anticipation, anxiety, and confusion. Others express excitement, happiness, and relief. For those parents who attended Camp War Eagle, you might already have an idea how your student is going to adjust to life in Auburn. Most parents and students look forward to increased independence, gaining competencies in new areas, and learning to develop healthy peer relationships. In general, college years are a time for students to continue maturing, developing, and learning how to successfully make their way through the world. Your student has heard over and over that they are about to experience the “best time of their life.” With that message firmly entrenched in their head, it can be surprising and scary to many when they struggle and do not feel they are fitting into Auburn. What does that mean for you as an AU parent?
Here are some of the messages you might hear:
“Help me!”/”Leave me alone!”
It is sometimes frustrating for parents to go through the transition process with their students without knowing how to be most helpful. Students add to the confusion by sending mixed or incomplete messages. The sense of urgency in the message can also change rapidly-catastrophizing a potential failed exam on Friday and surprised when you follow-up on Monday to ask about the actual exam result. Obviously, technology has significantly increased the ease in staying in touch. Although a convenience, this has also become an issue for some students’ transition to the university. More contact is not necessarily better.
As a parent, it can be difficult to know when to help, when to step back, and/or how worried to get. Usually a parent’s best guideline is to provide a steady, supportive home base while recognizing that there will be an ebb and flow in your students’ needs and expectations. Try to follow the lead of your son or daughter. Encourage them to work through a problem with you acting as the coach or consultant. Help them balance their thoughts and emotions to make their best decisions. Let them know that you respect their right to make a decision, and that you will serve as an advisor when asked. Reinforce and appreciate the new skills they develop; students often want their families to recognize their progress toward becoming adults. Remember to take care of yourself in this “Help me!”/”Leave me alone!” process by enlisting the support of others.
“I’m in college now. I get to make my own decisions!”
Parents have a high emotional (and financial) investment in their student’s decisions. Problems can arise, however, when parents are more invested in the college experience than their student. It can be hard to lessen your involvement in a student’s decisions out of fear that the student will not assume responsibility. The irony is that students often do not step-up to the task of being responsible until parents step back.
Taking a step back as a parent is uncomfortable, and at times frightening, because there is no guarantee that students will assume responsibility nor that they will make the same decision as you would. The fear that a student is not accepting responsibility in the interim can cause a parent lost sleep and new worry lines. Stepping back does not mean walking away. Express your concern but do not belabor your point. “We’re interested in what you decide, but we know you have to sort this out for yourself.” By allowing your son or daughter to make decisions, you are helping them become the responsible, mature adult that you have already worked so hard to produce.
“I was lied to at Camp War Eagle. College is nothing like I thought it would be.”
For many students, college presents the first challenges that they have had to face mostly on their own. Despite the number of opportunities to become involved at Auburn University, it can be difficult to make the instant connections with others that many students expect. They forget how long it takes to establish meaningful friends. It means finding out that studying the night before an exam does not work any longer. It means studying much longer to achieve the same grades they received in high school. It also might mean learning that their dream of going to medical school is not realistic. It means finding out how badly you want something and developing a plan to go after it. It means becoming resilient after setbacks. It means learning how to ask for help.
Coming face-to-face with new challenges is common in college. Finding support in dealing with these challenges is equally important. AU has many resources (e.g., counseling, academic advisement, academic tutoring, health and wellness education, etc.) to address students’ needs. In their quest for independence, students sometimes assume that being an adult means it isn’t necessary to ask questions. Parents can remind students that asking questions and using available resources reflect maturity. In fact, students who only try to handle problems on their own may actually be quite insecure. At the same time, parents and other family members can serve key roles in providing the support needed. Students tell us that it is important to know that their parents will offer consistent support as they venture out to meet the world.
“What happened to my room?”
The first visit home from college is usually an interesting one for the entire family. Emotions run the gamut. Students often return home thinking that their newly found independence will be recognized and appreciated by the family. In contrast, parents and siblings have continued to live in their usual style and generally expect that the previously established “house rules” will still apply.
It can be helpful to talk out your expectations prior to your student’s actual return home for their first visit. Parents should anticipate that their expectations will differ from their student. Ideally, a compromise that honors the family’s values and standards, and recognizes the student’s growing independence, should be the goal.
What Student Counseling & Psychological Services Offers
All enrolled AU students are eligible for psychological counseling, and there is no charge for counseling services. Former AU students who are not enrolled due to academic suspension may qualify for services if counseling is part of a comprehensive plan for their return to the university. Psychiatric services are available on a limited basis and may require utilization of the family’s or student’s health insurance. Both the counseling and psychiatric services of SCPS are intended to provide short-term assistance to students in dealing with personal and educational concerns that may be barriers to their academic progress.
After an initial assessment of a student’s concerns, SCPS senior staff members will determine if an individual’s needs may best be met by SCPS or are beyond the scope of our services. In the latter case, students will receive a referral to other sources of assistance. These sources may be on-campus or off-campus in the extended community.
How Do I Know If My Son or Daughter Needs Counseling?
There is no litmus test for knowing for certain that a student should seek help, however, we encourage students and parents to err on the side of utilizing services rather than waiting for a problem or issue to resolve itself. Frequently, the initial session is treated as a consultation, not a commitment to ongoing contact with SCPS. This initial session is also used to destigmatize and answer questions about counseling.
People seek counseling for many reasons. It may include long-standing clinical issues that they have already sought treatment for prior to coming to AU, a desire to enhance their personal growth, or address normal developmental concerns. A student’s issues may be addressed at SCPS through individual therapy, group therapy, psychiatric evaluation for medication assessment, psycho-educational programs, and/or skill building groups.
Common issues that students come to Student Counseling and Psychological Services to discuss include:
- Significant changes in mood (depression)
- Anxiety and stress management
- Relationship issues (break-ups, isolation or difficulty forming relationships, roommate conflicts, etc.)
- Alcohol and substance abuse
- Eating issues and body image
- Family issues (divorce, financial stressors, etc.)
- References to suicide
- Anger management
- Spirituality issues
- Psychosomatic issues (tension headaches, insomnia or excessive sleep, loss of appetite, etc.)
- Academic concerns (contemplating dropping out of school, worrying about possible academic failure, or considering a transfer to another school)
Counseling almost always involves the disclosure of sensitive personal information. All services at Student Counseling & Psychological Services are confidential and is determined by professional ethics and state law. Information about the counseling or services a student receives is not released except with the student’s written permission. The exceptions to confidentiality include where there is clear danger to the student or others, or as may be required by law. In the state of Alabama, the confidential relations and communications of licensed psychologists and their clients are placed upon the same basis as those provided by law between attorney and client. Confidentiality has long been regarded as a “cornerstone of the helping relationship” and is a core value of psychologists and their profession.
It is understandable that as a parent you may wish to be involved when your son and daughter seeks assistance at SCPS. As explained above, confidentiality does not allow involvement without the consent of the student. Often the best source of information for parents about the counseling process is the student. When students request their parents to be involved, an informed consent must be signed before Student Counseling & Psychological Services staff members can communicate.