We discussed all of the following (and more) with your child at their last checkup before they left for college. You, of course, were not present when we discussed these things because we asked you (politely, I hope) to leave the exam room. Lisa Heffernan spills the beans:
Freshmen get sick — a lot.
“Every year freshmen come into my office and say, ‘I have never been sick like this in my life. There must be something wrong with me,'” said Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, director of medical services at the University of Connecticut student health center. “And I say, ‘Yes, you are a freshman. That is what is wrong.”
But when freshmen are ill, most are dealing with their own health care for the first time, and that can lead to confusion, misinformation and poor decisions.
Your pediatrician has been hammering home the message about “poor decisions” since before high school. Hopefully, your children have been listening because their first semester will probably be their most difficult:
The early weeks of college are a time of great health risk. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “the first six weeks of freshman year is an especially vulnerable time for heavy drinking and alcohol-related consequences because of student expectations and social pressures at the start of the academic year.” Research suggests that freshman year is also a high-risk time for depression, sexual assault and drug use.
Perhaps your child chose to go to a college that is known as a “party school.” Hint to parents: every college is a “party school”! Parents who attended college know what goes on in college; pretending we don’t is just putting our heads in the sand. Heffernan reminds us that alcohol can be a huge problem on practically every campus:
Alcohol is the biggest risk factor in serious misjudgment, said Dr. [Jeffrey] Anderson, whether a student is driving under the influence or is a passenger in a car where the driver has been drinking. Talk about fights in bars, because guns and knives change everything. And caution students about sexual encounters where either party has not fully consented.
The transition of leaving home and going to college is challenging, both socially and academically. Every student is nervous initially (even if they don’t admit it), wanting to make a good first impression with their roommates, fellow dorm rats, and other students. They want to make a friend or friends quickly, mostly so they won’t have to eat alone in the cafeteria or find themselves alone on Saturday night. Finding your place in order to fit in takes time and requires patience and good decision-making skills — two traits that young adults starting college may not have developed just yet.
Academically, the transition from high school classes to college-level courses is jarring to many freshmen. Depending on the degree of difficulty of their high school curricula, a lot of college students are caught off guard when they realize just how much of their learning is done outside the classroom, and how much time it takes to learn the material on their own. Most college courses involve a lot of homework that includes a lot of reading and a lot of writing.
Making sure your college student knows what to do and where to go when they get sick is also really important:
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that sometime during freshman drop-off, parents should help their teens find the health center, the closest urgent care facility and the emergency room. Students should know how appointment systems or walk-in clinics operate, which services are offered on campus and which might require a local doctor. Review how to use the family health insurance policy for medical services and prescriptions, if he or she is still covered.
Even if your son or daughter won’t accept your “friend request” on Facebook, texting, Face Time and Skype, email, and mobile phones are all handy tools for keeping in touch with them. Heffernan adds these important thoughts for parents who know their children better than anyone:
In their advice to freshmen, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests, “Once your teen is settled into the college routine, keep in close contact and try to get frequent readings about how he is doing academically and socially. This is especially important during the first month or so while teens are still trying to settle in and may not have made friends yet.”
Parents should listen closely to the tone of their kids’ voices, and even their texts, and note any abrupt changes in voice or behavior like increased or decreased amount of sleep. Roommates and new friends may not have known a freshman long enough to discern that anything is wrong.
College should truly be the best four years of your child’s life (at least so far). Four years goes fast. My advice to students and parents is to take things one year at a time, one semester at a time.
One day at a time.