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Big Kids

29th Aug 2023

Expert shares steps parents should take to prepare their child for university

While starting university is an exciting new chapter in life, it can also bring on some worries.

The Leaving Cert has come and gone, results have been released, celebrations have ended, and now you, as a parent, may find yourself wondering how to prepare your child for, arguably, the biggest transition of their young lives.

Many young people begin to feel overwhelmed and anxious as this massive milestone approaches and that’s perfectly normal, but there are a few steps parents and guardians can take to ease those feelings.

University life is a completely different environment from the structure of home life and can exasperate struggles for young people with mental health challenges. However, a family psychotherapist has shared six actions parents can take now to help with the passage.

Founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic, Fiona Yassin, says one of the first steps you can take is to manage expectations about university life.

While many students will live out the best days of their lives at college, that’s not the case for everyone.

University can present all sorts of surprises for new students, between new flatmates, more intense learning, and the added pressure to motivate themselves to study and meet their deadlines.

Yassin explains that being realistic about what may lay ahead can help ‘cushion’ feelings of disappointment if they do arise.

“This preparation may help them feel more confident to take on a challenge. Look back on the challenges you faced as a teenager and be honest about what you experienced.

“Sharing your own tough experiences may help your child feel less alone when they come to face their own.”

Keeping a good routine in the run-up to your child’s departure is the second tip Yassin recommends.

Because it is such a big change for you and them, feelings of anxiety may fester as a family, which is normal, according to the family psychotherapist.

She says in order for there to be a positive beginning, there needs to be a positive ending, which helps with a smooth transition.

“You can help to achieve this by staying in the present and keeping a routine for the family both on and in the run up to moving-out day.

Yassin suggests having family meals together and putting fun activities in the diary ahead of time to maintain predictability and structure.

If the soon-to-be college student in your house suffers from an eating disorder or mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD, researching the university’s mental health support system is strongly encouraged.

Thankfully, each university will have a dedicated support ecosystem, so getting to know what services are on offer will help avoid extreme stress for an adolescent who may already be finding daily life challenging.

Yassin recommends doing this research together with your child to also get them familiar with the services.

“Contact the services ahead of time if you have any questions and, if possible, register with those you already know they need access to.

“These steps will help alleviate the stress of trying to find the right support when term has started.”

While this time is a big change for you too, it’s important to make sure your child and their feelings are the centre of attention.

Yassin says any parental feelings of grief, stress, and sadness about your child leaving the nest are normal; she says this next chapter should be all about them.

“While it’s important to acknowledge and reflect on these feelings, it’s also important to remember that, no matter how much blood, sweat, and tears you’ve put into getting them there, this step belongs to your child, not you.”

Your child will mirror your behaviours, so it’s of the utmost significance that you display a consistent, clear, and calm attitude during this time.

“There’s something wonderful in our brain makeup called mirror neurons. Mirror neutrons get us to copy and imitate actions or emotions,” Yassin explains.

She adds that this is important to remember ‘in all parenting’ and not just in times of high stress, as your child will copy and initiate these actions too.

If you are showing signs of worry, stress, or anxiety, they may absorb this and take it with them into their first term of university.

Of course, avoiding stress is easier said than done.

Meditation, talking it out, journaling, and exercise are wonderful tools for combating these feelings and grounding you during this time.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, Yassin encourages parenting by helping your child budget during the cost-of-living crisis before they leave for college.

An alarming two-thirds of students are struggling to afford their bills, according to the Nationwide Building Society, with record-high rents, rising fuel prices, and food bills being the biggest contributors to anxiety for students, so it’s more important than ever to prepare your university-bound child.

The clinical director recommends being transparent with them about finances.

“Every family’s financial situation is different. Try to be open and honest with your child about finances,” the clinical director urges.

“Ensure they are clear as to whether you have the means to support them financially or not, and help them budget their loan, wages, or allowance.

“Normalising conversations around money will encourage them to speak up if they become worried.”

And don’t forget: you’ve gotten them to this point, so make sure you acknowledge all your own hard work and take pride in this massive parental achievement.

We’re wishing all university students a healthy and happy academic year!