Transition from High School

The Top Tools Your Daughter Needs To Navigate College

Guest Post By Pamela S. Willsey

As a college transition coach, I’ve seen a thing or two.  The worry, excitement, and anxiety of parents sending their daughter off to college. The hopeful optimism of “she’ll be fine,” mingled with the fear that comes from wondering what may be going on unbeknownst to you… and what may be to come. And I’ve heard from the girls themselves as they navigate the incredible responsibility, intensity and confusion of their freshman year.  

Our Daughters Need Our Help.  

You don’t have to look far to find research that paints a very scary picture for the college freshman.  Lowered self-esteem in females. Academic stressors. Social demands. Feeling alone, like they’re the only ones who don’t have it “figured out.” The hookup culture — that brands a boy as “manly,” but often socially reflects negatively on the girl. Blackout, binge drinking. Dramatically increased rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

It’s a whole new world out there. Throughout high school, our daughters are fully supported and “enjoy” the benefit of layer upon layer of checks and balances. We’re there to issue curfews, check on them when they’re sick, and help them meet school deadlines. Their coaches and teachers are there to be yet another support system, reaching out to a girl who isn’t acting “quite right,” encouraging our daughters and holding them accountable to be their best. The trusted therapist is there for that additional emotional safety net.  

But, in August, all of this disappears, replaced with the “ultimate freedom” our daughters are both thrilled and nervous to experience. We’re no longer around to keep them focused and safe. Their professors won’t know and may not even care if they showed up for class or not, so forget the active mentoring they experienced from teachers in high school. And their trusted therapist? Well, therapists are often limited by professional guidelines in their geographical reach, and may not be able to continue in a distance relationship with your teen.

So, all of this support goes away. In its place is a culture where boundaries are few, anxieties and insecurities are increased, and the pressure to discover — and then become — who she really is intensifies.    

There are very few emotional and social resources available to Girls Heading Off to College

In over three decades of building a  therapy and coaching practice, I realized that even while parents spend and leverage countless hours, dollars and relationships getting their daughter into the college of  her choice, there are a precious few resources available to equip her socially and emotionally to succeed in the biggest transition of her life to date: her freshman year.  

I guess I should mention that I’m not only a licensed therapist, certified life coach, and college transition coach with over 30+ years of experience, I’m also a mom of 2 young adults… who also happens to be sending my youngest and only daughter off to college in the fall.   

My professional experience arms me with knowledge. For instance, I know the risks and risk factors for various behaviors. I know that the first six weeks of her college experience are when it will be the easiest for her to meet new people and be open to new experiences. I know the pressures girls feel to “hook up…” and their mixed feelings about it afterwards. I know the tendencies to self-medicate when alcohol and drugs are prevalent and the support she’s known — and depended on — her whole life seems to have disappeared. I also know like you, that although we have tried to plant many seeds of wisdom, it is now completely up to them which choices they will make.

Knowing all of this doesn’t make it any easier. And I’ve found the market to be incredibly lacking in resources for this very under-served niche of girls in transition. It’s why I created our annual Freshman 2.0 College Bound retreat to offer rising freshman the support of myself, professional colleagues, experienced upper class women and each other… just prior to move in day.  

So, what can we do? What are the Top Tools We can Put In Our Daughter’s Freshman year Arsenal?

  • A Trusted Adult Mentor

What your daughter needs the most  is one adult who can support her, be responsive to her needs, ask her the questions that will help her make good decisions, check in on her and be there in those dark and confusing moments. One adult, and her mother’s courage to acknowledge the fact that this adult may not be her.    

This adult doesn’t have to be a college transition coach or even a life coach for teenagers. I spoke with a woman yesterday who noted that the “trusted adult / mentor” she relied on during her college years was her older cousin, even while she and her mother enjoyed — and enjoy — a very close relationship. Your daughter may have access to a favorite aunt, older sister, teacher or advisor, or religious group leader.  

Helping your daughter find a trusted adult to help her navigate her freshman year — essentially takes the place of the extended families and close neighborhoods we had when we ourselves left for college.   

  • The gift of honest communication. Don’t just say “don’t drink or do drugs.” Empower her to say NO. But guide her as well. For instance, remind her never to put her drink down and to only experiment with drugs or alcohol with close friends and in a familiar safe environment.   
  • New Roommate Survival Guide: Not all roommates are matches made in heaven.  Encourage your daughter to discuss — up front — situations that may become issues like standards of neatness, and overnight guests.
  • Help for Homesickness: No, this doesn’t mean texting and calling (or even being available for constant communication) with your daughter. This can actually make her homesickness worse. Instead, set up a routine for connecting with her regularly. Encourage her to set up a private Facebook group for her high school friends, and to visit home — once — before Thanksgiving break.  
  • A Refresher Course in Conflict Resolution. Remind your daughter of all she already knows about how to effectively communicate how she’s feeling (and why) and what she needs from others. This  will help her  deal far more effectively with the conflicts that  will inevitably arise early in her college experience. These skills  can be a game-changer.

Why does she need all of this? I was fine.

If you’re like many college parents, you may be thinking, “I was fine in college… and I’m sure my daughter will be, too.” Tempting thinking, but does your daughter really have all the support you had in college? And is she facing similar challenges?

I’d wager she doesn’t and isn’t. Here’s why:

Times have changed. The party culture is dramatically more significant — with riskier choices — than it was when we were in school. Interpersonal communication and connection has fallen by the wayside as our daughters rely on digital texts, tweets and snaps. Deep “girlfriend” relationships are harder to find, harder to create and harder to sustain for our girls. Loneliness. Insecurity. Anxiety.  Shame. Confusion… all have the potential to go unchecked when your daughter is “out on her own” for the first time.

College girls are losing themselves and their voices, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Approaching this new time in their lives as an amazing opportunity to explore new ideas, people, and  environments will help to lay a foundation for true learning and impressive growth. With the proper support and preparation, our daughters will stay grounded, experiment safely, make lifelong friends and successfully navigate the barrage of choices and challenges that accompany the excitement and freedom of her freshman year.

About the Author

Author Pamela S. Willsey, Photo ©Elayna Bartolacci Photography

Pamela S. Willsey — a licensed therapist and certified teen life coach —  is a proven thought leader in identifying and providing  the tools girls need to navigate the challenges and opportunities that life’s transitions present. She recently published Packing for Success, one of the only self-help books that is capturing the hearts of teenage girls and young women all over the country. Find out more about Pam at willseyconnections.com/book.

If you’re interested in submitting a guest post, please click here to learn more.

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