On Edge About College: For Incoming Freshman - And Their Parents - It's A Time Of High Anxiety
August 5, 2009
By Kathleen Megan
It's a time when even the most normal, well-balanced kids can become unhinged. So can their parents.
The summer before college is a time of transition that tests everyone as changing roles, hopes, expectations, excitement, fears and anxiety collide.
Andrea Rossi-Reder, associate dean of studies for freshman and sophomores at Connecticut College, said that mid-summer is when she often will get phone calls from concerned parents who might say, "Oh, 'my daughter is mopey and weepy one day and all giddy and excited the next. ... It's almost like she's bipolar.' ... What I usually tell them is that this is absolutely normal."
Rossi-Reder said that such cocktails of emotions are often typical of high school seniors, as their excitement about leaving is matched by their fears.
Nica Weisinger, a June graduate of Conard High School in West Hartford, said she is mostly excited but also nervous about heading off to McGill University in Montreal.
When she worries, she said, it's less about the academics - which she figures she'll be able to handle - and more about the immersion in a completely different culture and the huge day-to-day change in lifestyle.
"Some days, it's like, "I can't believe I'm going to Canada,'" Weisinger said excitedly, and other days it's, "Oh, my God. I'm going to Canada."
Experts say that while the summer before college has always been a time of turmoil, it may be particularly so these days.
Carlton Kendrick, a Boston-based psychotherapist and author of "Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We're going to Grandma's: Hanging In, Holding On and Letting Go of Your Teen," said that when kids come in to talk during the summer before college, they often tell him, "I'm really scared out of my mind that I'm not going to make it."
The pressure and uncertainty about whether they will succeed in college is coupled with the worries and sadness about leaving friends, which often translates into an intense desire to spend time with those friends. "Your whole life is about to change in a radical manner, and you are trying to assure yourself: You will always have these friends, that this will never end."
Steven Roy Goodman, a Washington-based college consultant, said parents and children become confused by their roles. The kids wonder, "Am I a child, or am I an adult? What responsibilities do I have? Do I still clean the dishes?"
Parents like Sue Zirlen of Chester said that her daughter's upcoming departure for Emmanuel College in Boston has her crying one minute and counting the hours, minutes and seconds the next.
"One minute, I am so angry that if I wasn't a self-proclaimed pacifist, someone would be injured by now," wrote Zirlen in an e-mail, "and the next moment I am in a store sobbing as I walk through the picture-frame aisle because I am picturing my daughter in every frame at every birthday from her first."
All of these emotions can lead to conflict. JoAnne Carter of Education Solutions, an Essex college counseling firm, said, "We see a lot of kids who were perfect citizens all through high school, have never rebelled in any way, having a really tough time over the summer - not doing what parents ask of them, or acting out or getting into arguments."
Kendrick said the arguments make it easier for a kid to leave: "It's an awful lot easier to be angry and pissed at your parents and say you can't wait to leave than it is to be really saddened and frightened."
While for some kids anxiety about the unknown can lead to wild partying and substance abuse, for others it can cause withdrawal or depressive symptoms.
Experts say they believe the anxiety and fear has increased in recent years for a variety of reasons, ranging from the greater competitiveness of the college process to the over-involvement of parents.
"With this generation, almost from the day they were born, their parents were worried about which college they'd get into," said Rossi-Reder of Connecticut College. When these students finally get into a college and decide where to go, the letdown can be significant.
Some say the shaky economy has also increased the pressure on kids as parents are more likely to make it clear that covering the tuition is a huge family sacrifice. The "helicoptering" habits of many of the parents of this generation also may make departure harder: Parents are used to managing their kids' lives, and kids aren't so sure they can get along without it.
Young people are also more anxious in general, Rossi-Reder said, because "that's the way they are being brought up. ... Life is very stressful now. Our children are expected to do so much more, to excel so much more. It's not enough just to take classes; they must be involved in groups, sports - activities that are résumé builders."
By the time they get to the end of the summer before college, they may be thinking, "Oh, wait, that's not the end. Now I have to go to college and do this thing all over."