It’s mid-August and your teen announces having second thoughts about going to college. Maybe college isn’t such a good idea. Maybe it isn’t a good idea this year. Are those second thoughts a result of normal anxiety or do they speak to something more important?
Transitions, going from one context to another, are hard for many people. We are, after all, creatures of habit. We like to be comfortable. We like to know what to expect. We like to feel at ease with the people around us. Going off to college means everything will be new. For many teens, especially for those who never went away from home for a significant amount of time (like to a sleep away camp or an exchange program) it is the most difficult transition they’ve yet had to manage.
If you suspect that your daughter or son is dragging their feet about getting ready to go off to school, the first thing to do is to have a conversation. You may have thought your teen is ready and able to manage this big transition. But the approaching moving date may have surfaced both reasonable and unreasonable reasons for putting off school that your child has been reluctant to acknowledge to either her or himself or to you.
Reasonable reasons to put off school
Inconsistent self-care: Young people with serious health issues (a seizure disorder, cerebral palsy, diabetes, hemophilia, etc.) do go to college and do well. But it requires disciplined self-management to be successful. If your child isn’t self-confident about needed self-care or if he or she isn’t willing to share information about the disability or illness with appropriate people at school, there is work to do before going far from home.
Unresolved mental health issues: Mental health issues will interfere with a young person’s ability to adjust to the new environment and the social and academic demands of college. If those issues haven’t yet been addressed through therapy, it may be more important to take a year for treatment than for college. If the child already has a positive relationship with a therapist, it might be wise to continue with that therapist instead of starting over with a new one at school.
Immaturity: Although the promise of parties and lack of adult supervision has appeal, your child isn’t at all sure that he or she can focus on studies without the external structure you’ve provided at home. In that case, a year off to develop more self-discipline may be a good choice.
Interest in another career path: Faced with the prospect of another 4 years of academic work, your child acknowledges that her or his heart is really with a skilled trade or the military or another endeavor. Over-concerned about disappointing your college dreams, she or he hasn’t been able to tell you about it – until now.
Financial realities: Loans he or she signed for cavalierly only a few months ago now weigh heavily. Your child understands that loans do have to be paid back. She or he may be rethinking whether high-priced school X is really a better choice than lower priced school Y. Maybe it’s a good idea to work for a year or two to save for school.
Not so reasonable reasons to put off school:
Being unsure about a major: Your child may not understand that she or he doesn’t have to declare a major. In fact, 30 to 50 percent of entering Freshmen are “undecided” and an estimated 75 percent of students change their major at least once before they graduate. The first two years in a liberal arts college are intended to give students a little experience with many academic areas so they can eventually make a choice of major based on their personal talents, interests and goals.
Anxiety about leaving friends: The student will have many opportunities throughout the year to reconnect with friends. People who go off to college go home — a lot. In the fall, there are several three day weekends, Thanksgiving and the winter holidays. Most schools have some kind of vacation between semesters. Then there’s spring break. Before you know it, it’s summer.
Anxiety about leaving a high school sweetheart: See “friends” above. It’s also true that separating for awhile provides space for a young person to reevaluate whether being a couple was primarily a way to have some stability during the tumultuous teen years or if the relationship is really substantial enough to become a marriage.
Anxiety in general: Being nervous is normal during a transitional time. It’s not an indication of a bad decision. Think of it as a kind of stage fright. Any good actor will tell you that a little anxiety keeps them on their toes. They do a good job because it matters. Your student will be exploring a new place, new relationships and a new role as a college student. A little anxiety will help him or her do their best.
What to do
Reasonable reasons need to be addressed. Sometimes it’s best to take a year off from formal education in order to have focused time to mature, to resolve personal health or mental health issues (or at least to resolve them enough) or to reevaluate whether college is really the best next step toward adulthood and a career path. Sometimes a gap year program or year-long internship or volunteer job allows a student to explore an interest without the pressure of grades. Sometimes doing a year of paid work to save money for school relieves some of the financial pressure.
Unreasonable reasons also need to be addressed. Normalizing the anxiety may be all the young person needs. Talk about the fact that transitions really are difficult but that there are supports both at home and at school to help. Explore the college’s website together to answer whatever questions the student may have. Figure out the advising structure and the sources of help (dorm residential advisors, Dean’s office, counseling and health services, etc.). Factual information, reassurance and love usually bring the anxiety down to a manageable level.