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Dorm Sweet Dorm
A crash course for parents who have teens heading off to college.

by Lori Samlin Miller
A crash course for parents who have teens heading off to college.

“Before our kids left for college, our living room looked like a Walmart, with everything all stacked up,” Joe Carbone, a Washington Township father of three, confessed. By the time he sent each of his kids off to college, “it was easy for me to let them go,” he remembered. But six months earlier, before they left, it was another story altogether, said Carbone, as he found himself feeling wistful during their senior year of high school. “That’s when I remember feeling like we were losing them.”

It wasn’t until the summers started to fly by that Carbone realized that he was ready to see each one go. He wasn’t just ready to see all the big ticket items like the computer, rug, microwave, mini refrigerator and new bedding items depart from his living room, but also really excited for each of the kids. Carbone and his wife both attended Trenton State College before it was renamed The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), and felt they knew what to expect when they sent their first child, a daughter, there for her first year of college. The Carbones’ three children are graduates of Washington Township High School; next month their oldest, Amanda, 21, will begin her senior year at TCNJ; another daughter, Lindsay, 18, and a son, Joseph, 20, will spend their sophomore and junior year, respectively, at Rowan University in the fall.

If you have college-aged children who will go off to school this fall, the arrival of August, signifying the time for them to leave, is rapidly approaching. Whether you know what to expect or not, it is natural for both parents and their teens to find all sorts of emotions rising to the surface, ranging from excitement, dread, worry, or probably, a combination of all of these.

As the Carbones found out, this new phase in both your own and your child’s life represents a huge contrast from your experiences of just one year ago, when the college search process actually began and you found yourself involved to a greater or lesser extent in your son or daughter’s senior year. Then you were busy arranging your schedule around the schools your son or daughter wanted to visit, and later, focused on the application process and by year’s end, caught up in the excitement of senior trip or prom, rites of passage in the life of high school students.

It seems like only yesterday that you attended their high school graduation and now, whether this is the first or last time you will send one of your children off to college, you may find yourself wondering if they are ready to go, and if you are ready to let them go. Have you accomplished all you, as a parent, wanted to accomplish before sending them off? Covered territory that, no matter how long you have anticipated your child’s departure, still make you feel somehow that your child’s departure date is too soon?

Sex, Drugs, Drinking Decisions
With so many changes coming about at this time in the life of both the teen and their parents, “you can’t wait until they’re about to leave home to prepare them,” said Dr. Helen Rosen, PhD, who counsels teens, families, individuals, and couples in her Woodbury office. “Gaining independence is a gradual process that results from slowly giving them more responsibility for their own decision-making,” Dr. Rosen explained. “You can’t be making all their decisions for them, and then expect them to know how to think about what’s good and right for them,” said Dr. Rosen. These are the same vital decision making skills that will be relied upon in all matters, such as when drugs, sex, and drinking are offered, as well as in relation to being serious about their work and going to class each day, Dr. Rosen emphasized.

While leaving home for college is a milestone that results in increased independence for your child, it is a significant time for parents as they have a change in focus, too. “I don’t want to micromanage their lives,” explained Sharon Ritz, a mother of three who lives in Cherry Hill. “They’ll have to figure things out when they go away to school,” she said about her twin 17-year-old sons, Josh and Adam, recent graduates of Cherry Hill East High School, emphasizing that, “making mistakes is an important way to learn.”

Ritz will be sending the twins off to two different colleges this fall; one will attend Rider University, while the other will be a freshman at Drexel University. She explained that, “it is just as important for me that while they’re away, they try to figure out minor decisions instead of falling back on me so they have chances to work towards being independent.” While she and her husband will have to adjust to the idea of remembering that the twins are now adults who will make their own choices, she anticipates that the experience of living on their own will help them learn to make good decisions and the right choices. She expects “they will learn from the experience how to budget, and to see how much work and study will be required to keep their grades up.”

“I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” Ritz shared, explaining that she will still have a younger son living at home. Right now she is thinking more about preparing him to be an only child and helping him adjust to this idea so, “I’ve focused my thoughts and attention on his being home without his big brothers rather than on how my husband and I are going to feel,” Ritz explained.

In laying the groundwork for the upcoming moves her sons will soon make, she has been reinforcing to them that they have chosen schools that are a good fit, both in terms of size, location, and in reflecting their interests. “But nothing is etched in stone, she said, since “part of their success has to be learning flexibility, such as discovering if they’ll need to change majors,” Ritz explained. “They have us as support for whatever they’re going through, and they can always come to us,” she stressed.

Debbie Berkowitz of Mount Laurel is preparing her son, Josh, 18, a recent Lenape High School graduate, to go to college at the Rochester Institute of Technology this fall. After years of “making sure he understood schedules and deadlines that required him to get things done on time, like giving guidelines on getting from point A to point B, he is a hard working student with a good work ethic.” Berkowitz said.

“Also, our older daughter, who is now in graduate school [at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center's Prosthetics-Orthotics program, after graduating from Rutgers University in June], served as a role model for him,” Berkowitz explained. “Having a sister who was very focused with attention to details, deadlines, and goals enabled her to gain admission to the graduate school program of her choice.”

Even in cases where you wonder how your rebellious teen will react once they’re out of your home, “parents need to have confidence in their child,” Dr. Rosen said, as she clarified that “if parents have instilled values in their children, they’re there, inside them very strongly, and those are the same values that will come out once they’re out of the home and on their own.” It is important to be able to express your confidence in them and support for their going away, something Dr. Rosen said kids are sensitive about.

Modern College Campus Life
Joe Carbone recalled ‘the talk’ he delivered to his daughters before sending them off: “For the most part, boys had one thing on their mind…A guy will say anything to get a girl to like them.” He wanted them to know the reality of the situation, and he wanted it to come from him. He thought it was important for them to know that modern college campus life had a lot of freedom, a lot more sexual freedom now then when he was in college, and one night stands and diseases that can’t be cured were part of it. He wanted them to hear it from a man’s perspective, not from their girlfriends. Carbone was pretty sure he made them feel uncomfortable, but not so sure they believed him. But he felt he had to try.

“You can raise them right and talk to them, but since you can’t be with them 24/7, you can’t do much more than that,” he concluded.

Kids need to know you believe in them, a message they need to hear even when they are not living in your home. Recently I asked my oldest child, Ilana, a Temple University graduate who is now almost 23 and a preschool teacher, what was the most important or helpful thing we did or said before sending her off to college, and without missing a beat, she replied, “You always told me: We love you no matter what.”

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family, Volume 1, Issue 5 (July, 2010).
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