How to prepare your child for university

by Anita Naik

Seeing your child leave for university is both a proud moment and a nerve-wracking one. With MIND saying students are at higher risk of developing mental health problems, preparing your teens for the realities of university life is key to helping them handle the changes coming their way.

Prepare them mentally

Research shows a lack of problem-solving skills has been linked to mental health problems amongst students. Several studies have also highlighted the level of high-risk behaviours due to academic pressures, living apart from close family, and the social pressures that come with university life.

It's one of the many reasons why it's crucial to ensure your child knows how to solve their problems before they leave home. Students who don't know what to do when struggling with a challenging class or not getting along with their roommates are more likely to make a panicked decision or isolate themselves.

The good news is that problem-solving is a life skill that can be learnt. Firstly, take note of how your child currently handles stressful situations. Do they struggle to find solutions or feel overwhelmed by the options available or avoid making decisions altogether? If so, you need to build confidence around decision making.

This means slowly stepping back and pushing them to work through issues with your support. If they are stuck, start with some suggestions (rather than solutions) that will enable them to break down the problem and develop the ability to listen to advice, and finally weigh up the possible pros and cons of what to do.

Prepare for a new style of living and working

Sixty per cent of students say they weren't emotionally prepared for university life. Areas of struggle include fears, and anxiety around the change in living environments, working patterns and academic expectation from undergraduate work.

While it's easy to think of students as adults who are able to manage independent living and studying by themselves, the truth is they are still maturing. Studies show that undergraduate students undergo an intense period of rapid change and transformation in their first year that can be hard to handle. Some students are naturally more independent, but many others will need more ongoing support.

Helping Year 13s arm themselves with coping skills in advance is one of the best ways to help them. Start talking about how to handle over-powering emotions with a coping list. Discuss how calling a friend, exercising, or engaging in activities that help regulate feelings can help with feelings of avoidance, and isolation.

Prepare them to ask for help

Next, teach your child to advocate for themselves. The more your child gets used to speaking up and organising their own lives while living at home, the easier the change will be when they leave home.

Self-reliance is important because, as an undergraduate, your child has to be ready to ask for help and find support should they need it.

Thankfully university life offers an abundance of academic and emotional support for students, as long as they are willing to seek it out. What can help here is to brainstorm scenarios around what to do if they are struggling academically or dislike their course. Ask them to develop solutions around finding a tutor, working with peers or approaching lecturers for advice.

Finally, underpin all of this by asking them how they want you to keep in touch. A daily WhatsApp, regular chats, video calls and visits can go a long way to helping with anxiety and nerves, as long as this is what your child wants. Be sure to talk to them and allow yourself to be led by them.

For further help see our blog posts on Coping with anxiety as a student, What to expect from university life and How to look after your mental health.