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How to Help Kids Adjust to College

At this time of year, I start receiving dozens of tearful calls and panicky emails from parents whose children are off at college for the first time—and aren’t adjusting particularly well.

“He calls home several times a day, and feels like he doesn’t have any friends even though he’s playing lacrosse and has joined a fraternity,” one parent lamented. “Even though she’s doing everything right, she just texted me that she wakes up every morning feeling like she wants to cry,” wrote another.

Here’s the thing: It is totally normal for this major transition to be VERY DIFFICULT, especially if you’ve never been on your own before. Navigating making friends and living without family for the first time can be very hard. And that is okay. Kids usually survive the difficulty and discomfort; most grow dramatically because of it.

Tempted to go visit? Bring them home for a weekend?

Think twice before rescuing college students from the difficult emotions that they are facing (anxiety, homesickness, loneliness, etc.). Although their pain often becomes our pain, and we want to do anything that we can to eliminate it, we can actually prolong their pain when we don’t let them struggle through it. Kids learn three things when we try to take away their pain and discomfort:

1) It must be really awful to feel difficult things (i.e., homesickness). This isn’t true. Life is full of difficult emotions; most pass uneventfully. Difficult emotions are not necessarily traumatic, scarring, unnatural—or even to be avoided.

2) They must not be able to handle their difficult emotions on their own. This probably is true if they’ve never handled them independently in the past. Kids who always have problems solved for them don’t know how to solve problems themselves.

3) They are entitled to a life free from pain or difficulty. This is a pernicious (if unconscious) learned belief. No one is entitled to a life free from adversity. Kids need to learn to tolerate uncomfortable transitions, challenges, boredom and the like because life is full of them.

What to do instead of trying to rescue them

Instead of trying to mask or take away kids’ pain, we can help them feel more comfortable with discomfort by encouraging them to ACCEPT their difficult feelings. Here are four ways to do that.

1. Recognize that their emotions are real—then coach them through them. The key is not to deny what they are feeling (e.g., saying something like, “But you have so many new friends!” when they say they are lonely). Instead, encourage kids to lean into their feelings, even if they are painful. Ask them to narrate what they are going through, without exaggerating or sugar-coating it. “I’m feeling anxious right now,” they might say, or “I’m not sure why I feel stressed and nervous.” Encourage them to hang in there with unpleasant emotions. See if they can objectify their feelings. Ask, “Where in your body do you feel anxious/lonely/homesick/sad? Does the feeling have a color? A texture? A shape?”

2. Don’t encourage kids to distract themselves from their difficult emotions before they’ve acknowledged them. Leaning on numbing behaviors (drinking, going home, spending hours on Facebook, eating junk food) tends to prolong both the transition and the difficult emotions.

3. Practice self-compassion and kindness. Research shows that college students who are kind to themselves and accept that their difficult feelings are part of the universal experience of leaving home fare better than those who are critical of themselves. Self-compassionate students are less prone to homesickness and depression, and they tend to be more satisfied with their social lives and choice of college.

4. Finally, encourage kids not to compare themselves to other people! Everyone makes transitions differently. If they spend time on Facebook, they will likely end up feeling like everyone else is having more fun than them. I’ve never seen anyone post a selfie on FB or Instagram looking miserable with the update “I spent the last hour crying because I miss my mom so much.” Remind kids that social media is, for most people, a giant performance where they posture to make themselves look better than they actually feel.

A word of caution: While it’s important to let college kids know they can rely on their own inner capacities and family support to get through tough times, it’s also important to let them know that reaching out for help is appropriate—especially if they have any suicidal thoughts and incapacitating depression or anxiety.   If the situation seems intractable, parents should consider encouraging kids to seek mental health services through their college health department or the National Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK).

While it’s true that a happy life comes from positive emotions, it also comes from resilience—from having the tools we need to cope with life’s inevitable difficulties and painful moments. Like it or not, we tend to develop the skills we need to cope with homesickness only when we need them: when we’re away from home for the first time.

 

How to Deal When a Child Goes Off to College

Dear Christine,

My oldest child is off to college. In the last few weeks, relatives have been offering him their sage “how to succeed in college” advice. Friends keep sending me an article from the New York Times offering advice to college freshmen: “Don’t take other people’s Adderall. Granola bars have a lot of sugar. The stamp goes in the upper right-hand corner of the envelope.” Really? All of this is entertaining, but isn’t it all too little too late? Isn’t the point that they’ve outgrown our advice?

Part of my grief about my son leaving home is that my advice no longer seems relevant. I want to help him as he makes this big transition to adulthood…and I also want to lay down and cry.

I’d love to know what you think.

Outgrown Mom

Dear Outgrown Mom,

Oh, how I feel your pain. I just dropped off my youngest child, Molly, for her first year at college. Here’s my advice to us both: Let yourself lay down and cry as often as you need to. Not because you’ve been outgrown; you haven’t. Your relationship with your son will grow into something new, something wonderful.

Let yourself cry because it’s sad to lose the daily physical presence of our children, and it’s exhausting and ineffective to stuff our emotions down. Change is hard. It’s normal to feel emotional in times like this. Our urge to give advice is just an attempt to keep the change at bay, not to feel the loss of our role in their lives as live-in advice-givers. It’s not that our children growing up and going off to college is a loss—that’s always been the plan, and it’s a tremendous privilege to go to college—but there is usually some grief for us parents. It’s okay to feel that.

Instead of numbing your grief with busyness, or social media, or work, or whatever your distraction of choice might be, this is a prime opportunity to practice letting yourself feel whatever it is that you are feeling. This might seem unfun or counterintuitive—most people aren’t excited about the prospect of just lying down and crying. But if we don’t process our emotions, they tend to fester. And when we feel and acknowledge our feelings, they tend to dissipate.

Take a moment to identify an emotion that you are experiencing; there might be several. For example, you might feel relief as well as loss, because many high school graduates get pretty difficult before they leave home. (Being difficult is a way for them to separate from us parents; it makes it easier for our kids to leave. High school counselors call this “soiling the nest.”)

Pick one of the emotions you are feeling and see if you can objectify it: Where in your body does it live? Is it in the pit of your stomach? In your throat? What does it really feel like? Does it have a shape, or a texture, or a color?

The key here is to lean into our emotions, even if they are painful. Take a moment to be mindful and narrate: I’m feeling anxious and worried right now, or I feel so sad I could cry. Hang in there with unpleasant feelings at least long enough to acknowledge them.

One of the best ways to cope with a life-changing event such as this one is to move from labeling your emotions to truly accepting them, to surrendering all resistance to them. This is tricky because you may really, really, really not want to feel what you’re feeling, and you might only be doing this because I said earlier that emotions that are processed tend to dissipate.

It can be scary to expose ourselves to our strongest emotions. Take comfort from neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, who teaches us that most emotions don’t last longer than 90 seconds. What you’ll probably find is that if you can sit still with a strong emotion and let yourself feel it, even the worst emotional pain rises, crests, breaks, and recedes like a wave on the surf.

This can be a really hard process, I know. Once you are able to let yourself feel what you feel, give yourself a pat on the back for demonstrating what Peter Bregman calls “emotional courage.”

There are loads of benefits to having this sort of emotional courage beyond getting through major life changes such as having a child go off to college. Emotional courage will enable you to have that difficult (but necessary!) conversation with your boss or your mother that you’ve been avoiding for months because you were worried about the emotional fallout. It’ll help you stop pretending to be someone that you really aren’t. With emotional courage, you’ll be better able to take calculated risks.

And you’ll be modeling for your new first-year college student the emotional courage that they are going to need to get through this first semester. When they call home weeping or homesick, you will be in a better place to help them lean into their difficult feelings, even if they are painful.

In all of this, remember that you have not been outgrown. If you have been a source of trusted advice for your son in the past, he will continue to look to you for your wisdom. And if he doesn’t ask you for advice as he makes his transition to adulthood, that is normal. Please know that your presence in his life as someone who can cope with challenging emotions and difficult transitions (his and your own) is guidance enough.

Yours,
Christine

The Best Advice for New College Students (Not From Me)

This morning I said goodbye to Tanner, who is driving to Boulder with his dad for his first year of college. Next week, I will fly with Molly to Boston to get her settled in for her first year of college. Even though I have worn out my welcome in the advice department, I can’t help myself.

One of Tanner and Molly’s older sisters got some really amazing send-off advice from her wise college counselor, Maria Morales-Kent. This is a woman who has more than two decades of experience sending kids off to college. She’s seen where they stumble in their first few weeks, and she’s seen what helps.

Here’s the gist of Maria’s wise advice for first-year college students:

1. Focus on finding what makes your new home great for you.

One of the toughest challenges first-year college students face is homesickness. Even if you were dying to leave home, chances are you will miss it.

Believe it or not, you may also miss high school. Time and again, you may find yourself comparing your high school experience to every bit of your college experience and feeling sad.  Classes may seem large and impersonal; you might not get all the classes you want; professors may not even know when you are absent, or your roommate may turn out to be a challenge you never expected. Things like the weather may be a shock.

A recent college grad shared that he was never fully happy at his college because it never felt like home. But the truth of the matter is that college is not supposed to be like high school or home.

So, don’t focus on that.  Instead, focus on finding what makes your new home great for you.  It may be the newfound freedom and independence to choose your courses; it may be that a larger school translates to greater diversity, and you are finding not just one or two kids like you, but a whole community.

Finally, don’t fall prey to comparisons regarding the food, orientation, the bathrooms, the dorms, the town or city, etc.  Take in each aspect of your college and be open to what makes it unique.

2. Make personal connections – don’t be shy, don’t hesitate.

– Have at least a 5-minute conversation with each of your teachers during the first week of school.  Introduce yourself, comment on their lecture or readings, talk about your first few days on campus, etc.

– Do the same in your dorm – walk around the halls and pop your head into an open door.  So many kids will be dying to talk with someone.

– Find out about the clubs that might be of interest to you and go to the first meetings – and join in. 

3. Get help as soon as you need it.

– All of the faculty have office hours. Use them.

– If you are having trouble with a class or assignment, talk to your teacher right away.  Don’t let things build up.

– If things aren’t working out with your roommate and it feels untenable, talk to your RA.  There may be a very easy process in place to make a change or address the problem.

4. Meet with your advisor more than once.

In fact, after your first week of classes check in with them to share how you are doing – what you are finding hard or easy.  Help them get to know you. Realize that once you have a notion about what you want to study you can also begin to engage with faculty from that department. 

5. Meet the school’s Registrar.

They will be an invaluable source when it comes time to count your credits towards general education requirements, your major, or graduation.

6. If you are a financial aid recipient, go to the Financial Aid Office and find your advisor in the first week.

Introduce yourself and thank them for their work.  This will make access to them much easier if you have an issue in the future.

7. Most important: Take good care of yourself and always be safe.

Socially there will be lots of great things to do and people to meet. Temptations will be inevitable, and the consequences can be substantial. So be smart and thoughtful. 

Are you looking for advice yourself about sending a kid away to college? If so, perhaps you’ll like this post about helping kids deal with homesickness, or this one about how to deal with the sadness that inevitably comes when kids leave. Or this one, if you just want to reflect on all you taught your student before they left home. 

Maria Morales-Kent has been the Director of College Counseling at The Thacher School since 1997. Before that, she was an admission officer at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

 

Anchoring New Habits to Old Ones

Before we begin practicing a new behavior that we’d like to form into a habit, we’ll do well to consciously designate an anchor or trigger for that new habit: something that is the same every time you want to enact it. My evening walk with the dog, for example, is triggered by me leaving my office in the evening and walking into the kitchen to think about dinner, and then ultimately feeding the dog. (So, the time of day is an anchor, as is feeding the dog. After I feed the dog, I always habitually walk him.)

An anchor can be time of day, a different habitual behavior that comes right before your habit (those make good triggers)—even an emotion. For example, when you feel anxious, you may habitually pick at your nails. Or if you feel happy, you may habitually reach for your phone to take a picture. (I’m not suggesting these as good anchors or habits, mind you. Just showing how emotions are often triggers.)

A note about exercise, since so many people make resolutions about that: A general time of day is usually the best trigger, like first thing in the morning, after school, during lunchtime, or before dinner—but it can’t be the only thing that anchors your habit. Once you know generally the time of day when you’d like to do your habit, try to link your activity to an existing behavior or routine.

For example, here is the existing routine I linked my new walking habit to. It’s something that I was already doing before I added a walk into the picture. I leave the office in the late afternoon, walk across the backyard to my house, go into the kitchen, and call out to see who’s home and who’s helping with dinner. I get out the ingredients that need to be prepped for dinner, and then I feed the dog and give my family instructions for how they can help with dinner. That’s right where I inserted a walk: While the dog wolfs down his food, I now change my shoes (which are right near the dog bowls) and get a leash ready. From there, I quickly head out for a walk.

If you’ve got a habit that you don’t want to do every day, choose a trigger that occurs only when you want to do the habit. For example, “Do a thirty-minute yoga video twice a week” isn’t a habit. It’s a to-do item for your task list because there’s no clear trigger and therefore no clear automaticity. But if you work only three days a week, you can use work as your trigger: “Do a thirty-minute yoga video every weekday as soon as I walk in the door from dropping the kids off at school.”

In this free planner (see the “Goals” tab), there is a column to designate your anchor. I like to use BJ Fogg’s After I… Then I will… format (I highly recommend his latest book about habit formation, Tiny Habits). So the anchor for my dog walk is: After I feed the dog, then I will take him for a walk. Easy!

Learn more about successfully forming habits with my free eBook, How to Set a Resolution that Sticks.

Making Resolutions? Track Your Progress

What we measure, we improve. (Or, “what gets measured, gets done.”)

An important aspect of successfully getting into a habit is measurement. For example, we know that when people weigh themselves every day, they lose more weight than if they weigh themselves just once a week. This is because measurement drives awareness of behavior. For example, if you record everything you eat in a food journal, you’ll be much more aware of what you eat than if you weren’t diligently noticing and recording your food intake. So much of what we do is unconscious; measurement is about making ourselves conscious of our bad habits while we train ourselves to unconsciously out good habits.

In this day and age, tracking or measuring our progress is easy. (It’s so easy that we can sometimes get caught up in the measurement of things and spend more time playing with our recording devices than we do establishing our habits!) If you find techy ways to measure your progress fun, go for it. Otherwise, a piece of paper taped to the fridge will work!

Use this free planner (see the “Goals” tab) to designate how you’ll measure your progress. Be sure to set yourself up fully before you start practicing your new behavior! And notice that sometimes tracking habits needs to become a habit in and of itself. Consider adding “track habits” to your annual goals as well!

Why an Unambitious Habit is Better Than an Inspirational Goal

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” –Aristotle (via Will Durant)

Perhaps you are setting some resolutions and or writing out your annual goals. Fortunately, there are a few science-based tactics that massively increase the odds that you’ll be able to achieve those goals this year.

The first is to reframe your goal from the desired outcome or achievement into a daily or weekly habit. For example, resolving to eat an apple every afternoon instead of a cookie can lead to more lasting weight loss over the long run than a goal to lose 10 pounds. Similarly, spending 10 minutes each weeknight before bed cleaning out a shelf or a drawer is a better approach than resolving to declutter your entire household. Sending one networking email every morning before you leave for work will be more effective than resolving to “network more.”  Our outcomes are often lagging measures of our habits: What we do repeatedly adds up. Our habits lead to our achievements.  

Look at your list of what you’d like to accomplish in 2021. Perhaps you set a resolution to run a half marathon. An achievement like that will require a running habit – daily exercise. Or maybe you’d like to write a book? You’ll need to get into the habit of writing. When I’m working on a book, I set up a daily habit of writing 250 words first thing in the morning. For reference, what you’ve already read in this post before this sentence is 250 words – not much! But do that five days a week, and you’ll have enough written for a book in ten months! You, too, can write a book before the pandemic is over if you get into a daily writing habit.

The idea is to get in a habit of doing a new behavior – one that will lead you straight to your goal – every day (or nearly every day) so that it becomes automatic. Once something is a habit, no willpower is required!

So: What types of activities or behaviors will lead to the achievement you seek? Make a list. You can use the “Annual Goals + Habits” worksheet in this free planner to brainstorm. If you have a choice between activities, choose the one that you like the best, or that you want to do the most. What activity or behavior will you look forward to? What feels fun? What seems easy? What could actually count as play, or even a leisure activity?

If your smaller behaviors seem too fun or too easy to ever accomplish something big like writing a book or running a long road race, you are on the right track! Habitual behaviors that automatically help you achieve your goals make better self-improvement initiatives than shooting for an ambitious outcome.

For more information about getting into good habits, download my free step-by-step guide “How to Set a Resolution that Sticks.”

 

 

Obstacles to achieving your goals

If You Don’t Think About This, You Probably Won’t Achieve Your Goals

A fascinating line of research shows that the more we fantasize about achieving a challenging goal, the less likely we are to actually take a real-life step towards accomplishing that very goal.

So much for positive thinking and visualization practices! It turns out that daydreaming about our success is relaxing, but it isn’t energizing. We envision ourselves hopping off the couch and going for a run, and our brain reacts as if we’ve already gone for that run. Psychologists call this “mental attainment,” and it can really thwart us as we attempt to keep our resolutions and get into good habits.

Fortunately, related research shows us exactly what to do to avoid this surprising brain booby-trap. We need to follow up our resolution or goal setting with something researchers call “mental contrasting.” Here’s how:

Step One: Identify the Obstacle Within Yourself

Take a moment to stop to imagine what will prevent you from reaching your goals or keeping your resolutions. Start by imagining the external circumstances that might thwart you. Maybe you need support from a leader at work, for example. Or maybe you need your spouse to stop leaving junk food on the kitchen counter. Are those external obstacles overcomable? What will you need to do to make sure they aren’t roadblocks to your success? If needed, re-write your goal or resolution so that you feel you have a good chance at succeeding.

Once you’ve narrowed your resolutions down to goals that are challenging but that you still feel pretty confident you can achieve, identify how you will likely hold yourself back. What is it within you that will predictably stand in the way? How will you predictably self-sabotage? For example, maybe you’re afraid to ask that leader at work for support. Or perhaps you often shop while you are hungry…and so you are bringing junk food into the house.

Anxiety, stress, and laziness are common emotional obstacles. Bad habits and limiting beliefs (or incorrect assumptions) are others. What obstacles can you imagine you’ll face? You can use the “Make Plans for Obstacles” worksheet at the end of this free eBook to get started.

Step Two: Make a Plan

What will you do in the face of these obstacles? What instrumental behaviors will help you overcome the obstacles you’ve identified? Frame your plan using an IF/THEN sentence. For example:

  • IF it rains, THEN I will still walk the dogs, and I will use the umbrella that is in the front hall.
  • IF I feel anxious about asking my manager for support, THEN I will remind myself of the times when she has said that she is happy to help.
  • IF I start to feel too overwhelmed to get started, THEN I will close all open browser windows, close all my apps, turn off my phone, and focus on one thing at a time.

A great deal of research shows that when people make a specific plan for what they’d like to do or change, anticipating obstacles if possible, they do better than 74 percent of people who don’t make a specific plan for the same task. Making a specific action plan dramatically increases the odds that you’ll follow through.

People who plan for obstacles tend to be able to meet their goals more successfully. For example, research shows that recovery from hip-replacement surgery depends in large part on having patients make a specific plan for how they will deal with obstacles.

It’s very painful to get up and move around after hip surgery. At the same time, recovery is generally more successful if a patient gets up and walks around a lot. In this study, patients who had just undergone surgery thought about getting up and walking around. Then, they made plans to handle the pain. So if their goal was to walk to the mailbox and back every day, participants practiced thinking: Okay, I’m going to get about halfway there and it’s going to hurt like heck and I’ll want to turn around.

Patients wrote down what they were going to do when they got halfway there and it hurt like heck. These patients recovered faster. They started walking twice as fast and could get in and out of a chair by themselves three times faster than people who didn’t make a specific plan to deal with the pain.

In sum: It is extremely important whenever we establish a new habit to think through all the seemingly minor details. Especially the details that tend to hang us up in the end. We need to decide what the key factors are for our success and how, specifically, we can set ourselves up to overcome the obstacles we may face.

You can use this technique daily by (1) jotting down a problem you need to solve or something that you’d like to accomplish, (2) noting what is likely to hold you back, and (3) making an if/then plan. To make this easy for you, I’ve included these steps in my new planner (it’s free online!), which you are free to customize and print out.