Helping Your Teen Make the High School to College Transition

October 2015

by rebecca stewart

It’s a major parenting milestone like no other you’ve encountered before. Your baby has graduated high school and you are officially the parent of an “adult.” Some might look at 18 and see a glorious finish line, but the reality is you don’t just look at your 18-year-old and say, “Hey, it’s been real! Good luck to you out there in the great wide world; see you at Christmas!” No, we all know the parenting gig is not up just because your child has technically reached the land of adulthood; it’s simply a new beginning and a whole new brand of parenting. Which leads us to the all-important question…

How do we transition from parenting our dependent child/teen, to parenting an independent young adult?

For some advice on answering that question – particularly in supporting your teen in the transition from high school senior to college freshman – we checked in with Jeff Rosenberry, Interim Associate Dean of Students Division of Student Affairs at Montana State University-Billings.

As children are growing and making their way through school, parents could check in regularly with teachers and know what’s up with homework and how things are going in general…Not being constantly in the know can be a difficult transition, so we asked Mr. Rosenberry what advice he would offer parents/families in coping with that shift.

  • My first piece of tangible advice would be to come to the summer orientation program because there is a specific agenda for parents and family members. It’s two days, the first day coincides a lot with the student, going through some mini-workshops on things that everyone needs to know. Kind of that advising and registering component. And the second day, while the students are out registering for college and becoming college students, we take the parents and fill their heads with a lot of information. And we talk very candidly about how college is hard. If it was easy, everybody would do it.

And my theory is, the only difference between a senior who’s just graduated and a freshman in college is three months. And so sometimes we assume that students are more ready than they are. The big piece about our orientation program is that we take them through: “What are the major differences?”

  • And one of the biggest conversation pieces we have during that time, and the other piece of advice that I would give parents and family members, is that they really need to let their students be self-advocates. It’s different than high school, notes Mr. Rosenberry, where mom or dad could go directly to teachers with questions, in college not only are there federal laws that prohibit that kind of communication, but more importantly “we’re all trying to reach the same goal: creating young professionals and young people who can make it in the world.”

Taking steps in that direction includes parents and family members having conversations with their student, saying, “Okay, I’m not gonna do it for you, but let’s walk through what an email to your professor would look like,” or what that phone call/email to the housing office might sound like, says Mr. Rosenberry. Difficult though it may be, Rosenberry notes some of the best advice he can offer to parents and family members is to let your student fail, let your student run into some road blocks. “I can assure that they will fail forward. I can assure them that the University has staff and faculty in place to support those students in every aspect, but we want them to be the ones to develop as young adults, we want them to be the ones to advocate for themselves.”

A different kind of connection…

That’s not to say that parents and families should be disconnected from their student’s college experience. In fact, about five years ago MSU-Billings saw that there was a bit of disconnect for parents and family members when they would reach out for information and so the Parent & Family Programs was born. This offers a centralized place for parents and families to communicate with the school that offers a variety of resources. You can find tips on how to have these important conversations with your students or what to expect when your student comes home for break…

In addition to that a program called MSUB Family Connect was developed. This is a database that people can sign up for and receive monthly emails that highlight different activities and events, things that are happening on campus and information that parents should probably know so that they can have those conversations with their student. (For example, advising is coming up, so an email was sent out that talks about all the advising programs coming up and that registration for spring is right around the corner).

The conversations aren’t stopping, they’re just changing.

Supporting your teen from a distance…

So your teen is away from home, you get the stressed out, in-tears phone call and they just need some support. We asked Mr. Rosenberry where parents/family members can direct their student on campus for help.

  • For those students living in the residence halls, I think one of the first places that a parent or family member can send their student is to their Resident Assistant. We have some of the best student leaders on campus in these roles, they are highly trained in a variety of areas. Everything from crisis management and safety issues to just being able to talk and listen to the issues that students have. Front line staff are the most accessible and they’re there to kind of walk students through those challenges. And each of our halls has a full-time Masters-level professional staff member that oversees the building as well.
  • Outside of that there are a lot of offices that are committed to the success of the students that parents can send their students to. One of those is our Academic Support Center. Any support a student needs academically, a student can get it there. Whether that’s help for tutoring with writing or math or reading – really any subject. That area is designed to be a place where students can walk in and say, “I think I need a little help here.”
  • For students who don’t live on campus, one of the best things they can do is get on the University’s webpage and look at the master calendar and see what’s available out there. And let’s find a way for them to connect with the programs and events, but then also let’s find a way for them to connect with the over 60 clubs and organizations we have on campus.

Finally, we asked Jeff if he had one final piece of advice that he’d want to leave with parents and family members…

"It’s gonna be okay. Sometime moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles...just need to hear that. It’s going to be okay. I’m a firm believer that everyone has a right to college, but college may not be right for everybody at any given time, and that’s okay too. Maybe you decide, ‘Maybe I’m not quite ready, I’ll give it another go when I am.”

It’s going to be okay.