The Launch to College and the Art of Disconnecting

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The Launch to College and the Art of Disconnecting

We live in an age where being “out of reach” is practically impossible. With cell phones and social media, we are all tethered to one another almost continuously. How does this 24/7 accessibility to one another affect us as parents and how does it affect our kids, particularly as they grow through their teens and occupy wider and wider circles of mobility?

And what is the effect on parents and teens of having such constant communication with one another once the teen launches to college?

Having what in tantamount to an embedded location chip in one’s teen is immensely reassuring. It allows parents to track an adolescent’s movement and to oversee his or her activities. Once a teen begins to drive, getting a call that lets the parent know “I arrived” is a great comfort. And having one’s teen know that if any social situation gets uncomfortable or dangerous, “we are a phone call or a text away” provides an often much-needed safety net for the teen.

But then comes the move to college and often a teen’s first real experience of being on his or her own. And now this umbilical cord may need to be re-examined.

In many ways, ages 18 to 23 should be called late late adolescence. It is a time of much experimentation, risk-taking, mistake-making, and confusion. And all of this turmoil is a necessary component of identity formation.

Teens cannot know who they are if they do not discover who they are not. And so the 18- or 19- year-old will have relationships that are unhealthy and do not work. He or she may fail to adequately study and do poorly freshman year.

College students often gain or lose weight and experiment with drinking and drugs. Of course, parents will not want any of these activities to get out of hand. a precipitous weight loss could indicate a burgeoning eating disorder; binge drinking or getting high on a regular basis could indicate a significant drug/alcohol problem. and in these instances, the parents must intervene. but many teens “mess up” in ways that are not as dangerous and are not indicative of emerging psychopathology.

Part of what is difficult in this culture of constant communication is that parents are privy to a blow-by-blow of their college students’ activities and so parental worry gets inflated. Remember the college student’s Sunday night touch-base phone call with parents way back when? In many ways, this may have been healthier for parents and students alike. For the student, having distance from parents allows him or her to slog through academic or social “messes” and come out the other side without necessarily needing input from parents. And this is important for an 18- or 19-year-old because it develops emotional muscle…or the capacity to work out anxiety-provoking, difficult situations on one’s own.

And this distance may also be a welcome relief for parents as well. Hearing that one’s teen is struggling or depressed when it is happening is a very different experience for the parent than hearing about it two days later when the teen has resolved it or gotten over it. And perhaps the parents really did not need to be on the emotional roller coaster right next to their child; perhaps one of the luxuries of having one’s child at college is that the parent gets to miss some chapters of the teen’s life. This is challenging for many parents because it is so easy to be in touch every step of the way and, as a culture, we have become used to communicating our experiences immediately. Refraining from over-communicating may require that the parents recognize and work on their own struggles with separation anxiety.

It is a difficult task as a parent to step back and not track all of one’s child’s ups and downs. Once that child gets to college, rather than automatically being in constant communication and hearing about every bump in the road, it may be beneficial for parents and students to create some healthy space–space that can be rewarding and transformative for both.

Jane Benjamin, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
The Counseling Center Inc.
180 Pondfield Road
Bronxville, NY 10708
Tel: 914-793-3388 ext. 122