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What to Expect Before Your New Grad Leaves for College

As your student gets ready to leave home, watch for stress, anxiety and need for independence

mother comforting teen daughter who appears stressed
evgenyatamanenko/Getty Images

For parents, the months before your high school graduate leaves home for their college move-in may be filled with every emotion, from pride and excitement to worry and confusion about your child's changing moods.

While you may want to spend as much time as possible with your soon-to-be college student before he or she leaves, your child may be putting as much space between the two of you as possible, spending fewer hours at home and behaving badly when there.

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Like the guides to the ages and stages of baby and toddler behavior, written about in bestsellers What to Expect When You're Expecting and What to Expect: The Toddler Years, an emerging adult's pre-college conduct also can be predictable, experts say.

These behaviors are among the ones you can expect from your young adult in the months before college.

Increased anxiety or stress

As young adults prepare for the transition, it's normal for them to show signs of stress or anxiety, says Stephanie Pinder-Amaker.

"There's a lot of uncertainty as children are preparing to move from the structure and support that they know at home to many things that are unknown,” says Pinder-Amaker, director of the College Mental Health Program at Harvard's McLean Hospital. How your child historically responds to stress is normal; it's the unusual responses to stress you should look out for, she says.

Nerves can fray when young adults face separation, says Amanda Fludd, a licensed clinical social worker and executive director of Kensho Psychotherapy Services in New York. As they go from a supportive home environment to navigating academic and social pressures firsthand, Fludd says, young adults can worry about letting their families down or fear not meeting expectations.

Pinder-Amaker says parents need to be wary of symptoms of depression such as irregular sleep patterns, inability to focus or concentrate, or disinterest in things they love. “It's really important to pay attention to what's going on emotionally,” Fludd says. “As much as we pack them up to leave, and cover the dorm list and what's needed for the syllabus, I think we also have to check-in and make sure they're ready."

Budding independence

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Have you noticed your child suddenly taking on more responsibilities for themselves? Maybe they want to open their own bank account, or maybe they have a sudden desire to do their own laundry and make their own meals. “Healthier young adults become more independent and autonomous as they're preparing for this transition,” Pinder-Amaker says. A growth in independence and the desire to be responsible are positive signs. Pinder-Amaker says filling a prescription, mailing a letter or managing a budget might see like simple tasks, but these are the behaviors and responsibilities that parents should encourage as their kids transition to college.

However, as young adults start tackling more tasks and earn a sense of independence, another behavior parents may notice is confrontation about rules, says Karen Swartz, M.D. “As they prepare to go away, they often get upset or might argue about a curfew or expectations of parents knowing where they are,” says Swartz, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Parents should promote independence but also encourage adult conversations with their children. If a curfew is important to safety, explain that to your emerging adult, Swartz says. Young people should begin understanding why and participating in mature conversations about it.

Communication changes

More independence can lead to changes in communication. Young adults might start to ignore their parents or talk only to their friends, or start disagreeing and arguing. This could all be completely normal, Swartz says. She says it is important for a parent to remain calm and not respond emotionally when having negative interactions and conversations with their young adults.

"Communication once someone is away at school is going to be reflective of the kind of communication you had that summer,” Swartz says. If parents want their college students to continue conversations once they're away, they need to establish a healthy communication style before they leave, she says.