In less than eight months, my eldest son will be off to college. I suppose I am less anxious about this grand event than most moms because he has shown me that he is ready for the college environment. For one thing, he got his driver's license last year, and so far, he has demonstrated that he can be trusted with this new privilege. I have stepped back and watched him handle issues in school, such as conflicts with classmates or misunderstandings with teachers, and he has done so without relying on his stepdad or me to fix things for him. Plus, he and I have had numerous discussions about life, relationships, decision-making and failure, all meant to prepare him for the challenges ahead. And while he has shown a few less-than-stellar responses to some situations, I am confident that he is ready to handle what's ahead.
At least, that is my hope. As a college professor, I've seen many undergraduates struggle to pull it together in their new environment. The transition from high school to college is a significant life transition, one that I believe can be just as disquieting as transitioning to work.
Based on my work experience, teens often have a difficult time going over the following four hurdles where, whether they admit it or not, a parental wisdom is appreciated. Word of advice: more listening, less sharing from your end, please.
#1 They will wrestle with identity and belongingness.
"Will they like who I am?"
By the end of high school, we more or less figured out the social landscape — who was popular, who wasn't, who was smart, who was kalog. There were unspoken rules about who was allowed to hang out with whom, and most of us found security in a barkada. Some were followers; some were influencers. And somehow, many of us became keenly aware of where we belonged in that social landscape.
For our kids entering college, it starts all over again. There's a whole new set of people to learn about and an entirely new social landscape to figure out. Some will quickly discover where they fit, while others will take the opportunity to shed old reputations and reinvent themselves. Some will wrestle anew with personal identity as they, once again, become keenly aware of where they are landing in the social landscape.
I've seen students neglect academic responsibilities because of this strong need to belong. They abandon study time the minute their blockmates invite them to eat out. They spend a disproportionate amount of time on org-related activities because their need to belong is met by the organizations that they join. I'm not saying that it's wrong to hang out with friends or be involved in clubs. But it would be good to talk to your adolescent about maintaining balance as he or she explores new relationships and discovers new aspects of his or her identity.
College-age teenagers are given much more headroom to make decisions in college, but some of them are not sufficiently prepared for this freedom. Take cutting-class, for instance. Professors give students the prerogative to miss class — no questions asked — as long as they stay within university rules and meet class requirements. It's liberty they quickly own, and it's a liberty that some of them use irresponsibly.
Not all instances of cutting class involve the abandonment of responsibilities for social pursuits (e.g., defending one's beer bong and billiards title). Some students decide to cut class because they need to prepare for another one. Perhaps they failed to maximize the three-week lead time given to do a project. They think the move is strategic, but they do not see the causes and effects of their decisions.
The question we need to ask is when no one is monitoring their every move, do our kids make the best decisions on how to spend their time and who to spend it with? Are they making the right choices that will lead to graduating on time? It may be worthwhile to help them see that significant victories and failures are a result of small, everyday decisions.
What we currently know from neuroscience is the last part of the brain to develop fully is the prefrontal cortex. That's the part that's responsible for impulse control, planning, weighing future consequences and moderating social behavior — you know, all the functions needed by a human being to not act like an idiot. Neuroscientists report that this part is still developing during the adolescent years and may not fully develop until well into the 20s. (Some wives say that it never fully develops for some people at all *wink*)
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Now, while the prefrontal cortex is taking its sweet time, the structures of the brain that have to do with emotions, memories, and arousal — the limbic system — is pretty much already in full swing during adolescence. From what I understand, it's the limbic system that makes adolescents particularly attuned to their emotions and drawn to situations that arouse positive feelings.
In short, our kids are walking around with active limbic systems and underdeveloped prefrontal cortices, which is a mean trick for nature to play on us parents.
If you ask a typical adolescent, "What's the right thing to do in between classes with exam week coming up: go to the library and study or join your blockmates singing loudly in the corridor led by someone on a guitar?" (They all have that one guitar-playing friend.) Chances are, your adolescent will answer the former, of course. But the minute he sees guitar guy surrounded by loudly singing friends on his way to the library, his limbic system overrides his prefrontal cortex and bam! He's singing along, and before he knows it, he's missed Algebra class.
I am NOT saying that all kids are at the mercy of their limbic systems. Nor am I asserting that adolescents are doomed until their prefrontal cortices catch up. I've met many teens who were trained by their parents very well and had learned to demonstrate sound judgment in words and actions.
It may be good to share this information with your kids, not to give them an excuse for their impulsive actions, but so that they can be more mindful of their decisions. Help them realize that they have a choice: be emotionally hijacked by your limbic system or help your prefrontal cortex build some impulse-controlling muscle.
I think the word they like to use is "adulting," but they seem to believe adulting is something done after graduation.
#4 They will question the direction they've set out.
"Is this really what I want to do in the future?"
Many of us parents were heavily involved in the college course selection process. Way before they started filling out college application forms, we were already giving them signals about the "acceptable" career options. I once had a student tell me that he and his sister grew up thinking they only had two options: to pursue medicine or law. (Their mother is a doctor and their father is a lawyer.) When I asked him, "Did they explicitly state that you could only pursue medicine or law?" Without a beat, he replied, "No! They never forced us. But it was somehow implied."
Lucky for their parents, my student happily continued law while his sister pursued medicine, which goes to show that our kids form beliefs about what would make us proud of them and what would not, regardless of what we say out loud.
Here's something to think about: our adolescents are made to fill out career assessment tests in school that supposedly tell them what they're good at and what they might enjoy doing for a living. So what happens to the kids whose results show them they would flourish in visual arts, but their parents are only willing to pay for a pre-med, accounting, or engineering education?
Of course, we want the best for our kids. And after telling you about the limbic system, I am not about to advise that you let your adolescent blindly follow his or her heart when it comes to career selection.
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What we need is to sit down with them, find out what beliefs they have about our expectations, and see how we can align hopes and aspirations. It is a critical discussion to have because I've seen far too many students who feel demotivated, confused, and even depressed because they can't seem to get themselves to own the path they are on.
I guess at the end of the day, that's what college is about — shedding the ways of childhood and starting to own one's life path. From this college professor to a fellow parent, we need to help them go.
Mom to a 19-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter, Angela Abaya-Garcia earned her master’s degree in Psychology from the Ateneo de Manila University. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology at De La Salle University (Manila), where she also teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on child development, research methods, learning, and teaching.