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From Adolescent to "Adult" - The College Freshman's Transition

College Freshman Anxiety

Every new school year offers new challenges for students as they start the next grade. There is excitement and maybe even a little bit of anxiety about the new school year as students start to anticipate new goals and challenges. Parents do their best to prepare their kids, no matter what the age. But there might be one student category that has a bit more anxiety and needs just a little more support … that would be college freshmen.

College freshmen have some different challenges that other students may not. Since most college freshmen are typically between the ages of 17 and 19, they have an interesting and possibly difficult situation to navigate. When I think about this age group leaving home likely for the first time, they basically have one foot entering adulthood and one foot just leaving adolescence. Even if the college freshman is not moving away and still living at home, it can be an emotionally slippery time

Brain of a College Freshman

In talking with the psychologists and psychiatrists in the Behavioral Care system here at CHI Health, they are quick to remind me that our kids in their late teens and early 20s might physically look like adults, but there is still a significant maturation process that the brain is going through. This is important for both the college students and their parents to keep in mind. It’s important because, although the decision-making part of the brain is more mature now than it was when your child was, say 12 or 13, there is still a ways to go.

Temptations and Concerns During The First Year of College

With college, there are all sorts of wonderful new experiences, but let’s face it – those new experiences can be positive or negative - possibly generating some new temptations and concerns. Parents have to work through some of their own anxieties about making sure they taught their college-aged child right from wrong and how to make good decisions. College students – even those who are not freshman - have to make sure they know how to set healthy boundaries, get their homework done, make new friends, say no to drugs and alcohol, get enough sleep, show up on time for classes, and hand in homework without being prodded by parents and teachers. College students are expected to behave more like adults than children.

More Freedom Can Cause More Problems

It can feel overwhelming for the new college student to face this next step into adulthood. And while some of our kids do it with effortless ease, others may struggle. Frequently, it’s the new-found freedoms that cause the biggest problems. Not having a curfew, no one prompting them to do their homework and get enough sleep, friends insisting that under-age drinking is no big deal because “everybody does it” are just a few of the new hurdles that the college freshman must be prepared for.

How Parents Should Handle This Transition

For parents who are reading this blog, you may want to consider having a conversation before sending your child out the door for that first year of college. It doesn’t have to be a lecture with threats and finger pointing, but it is important to remember that you are not their friend – you are their parent. Making them aware of your concerns and expectations helps them. When children of any age know what parents expect, they can have a better recipe for creating their own healthy boundaries no matter where they go to school.

As parents it’s also important to keep in mind that our kids make mistakes. They are living in a world that has more choices and maybe even more dangerous choices than when you were their age. It’s important to help them create some options for saying no to drugs, sex, and other choices that can pull them away from their college and career aspirations.

How College Freshmen Should Handle This Transition

For college students reading this – freshmen or even returning college students – you likely already know that college offers seemingly endless educational and social opportunities. It’s understandable if there are some anxiety and some emotional ups and downs as you prepare to take this next step of your life. I would invite you to talk with your parents or other trusted adults before you start that first day of your college career. Talk about your hopes and your dreams, and maybe even a little bit about what you’re afraid of, concerned about, or sad about. It’s completely understandable if you have some mixed emotions.

You’re leaving the nest, and there is an expectation from your parents and probably deep within yourself that you’ll make good choices, create lasting friendships, and succeed beyond your wildest dreams. For most of us, succeeding takes time, patience, effort, and support from others – family, friends, professors, ministers, and others. Be patient with yourself and even with your parents. This might be new for them too.

Happy new school year everyone. Summer is nearly over, but there are wonderful possibilities with this new school year. As parents, we can help our children of any age succeed by setting a good example, helping our kids make good choices, and being there when they make a mistake. As a student, you have many new choices and decisions up ahead. Your choices really do matter – because you matter!

Original post date: Aug. 2015. Revised: July 2022.

Karen Williams, LIMHP
Karen Williams, LIMHP

Karen Williams, LIMHP is a Mental Health provider at CHI Health.

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