Off they go…..again

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For years and years kids have been going off to college.  Other than when I did it in the Dark Ages, I hadn’t paid  much attention to this annual send-off.  Two years ago several of my closest friends were packing up their oldest kids for college.  I sat on the sidelines taking notes and preparing for our turn.  Last year we successfully sent Kid #1 off for his freshman year.  I thought it would be easier this year, but on Saturday as he sprinted  headed back to school I felt sad and heavy and was/am really missing that kid (despite his shenanigans).

It is weird how my home life so often mimics my work life.  On Monday a wonderful client literally went from his last therapy session back to his university.  On Tuesday, a lovely young woman with whom I have been working since December came for her final session before heading off for her freshman year.  As their therapist I bid them off with congratulations for doing such great work in therapy and thrilled for what lay in store for their coming year.  As a mom, I felt that pang, thinking about their moms and knowing the hole that they leave behind.

With both of these clients (and always when a client is terminating therapy) I review what they will take with them in their ‘metaphorical’ tool box.  We discuss what issues have been discussed, how they have been resolved and what to do if the struggles were to return.  I told each of these kids that if they feel a “ripple” of an issue that they can contact me.  I told them that they don’t have to ‘wait it out’ or let it get too big.  In the same breath, I reassured them that it is completely normal to  have a “bad day” or some “stress”.  All of us humans have bad days  followed, hopefully, by better ones.  Mixed messages? Perhaps.  But, I want them to have permission to both sit with a  bad day, but not become overwhelmed if the bad day turns into old fears or anxieties.

I remember when touring colleges with Kid #1  (much to his dismay),  I had several questions when the  perky tour leaders pointed out the counseling center.  I am so pleased that colleges are supportive of their students’ mental health.   Sometimes I will do Skype therapy sessions with a client that has gone to college and other times they will contact a local therapist in the area or go through the college counseling center.  It depends on the situation and the specific client; but I am always in contact with the treating therapist to assure that these kids are getting their needs met.

To the new freshman class and their parents, I wish you a great year.  To all those returning students and their families, same to you.  Kids – have fun, BE SAFE and don’t forget to call home.

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Community College: A great choice for some

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Disclaimer: Each of my client cases are fictional. They are compilations of hundreds of client situations I have encountered throughout my career. This is to protect the confidentiality of my clients. Anything that may resemble a real person or family is simply a coincidence.

 

Last night was the Spring Sports Awards Banquet at my son’s school.  ‘Banquet’ in the sense that the teens dressed nicely and ate California Tortilla in the cafeteria.  The coaches spoke and presented awards, the teens were polite and enthusiastic and it was a nice event to celebrate these athletes.

After the initial dinner and awards, each team had their own presentation.  At the track break-out meeting, the coaches got more personal, talked about the season and highlighted several of the most improved and best sportsmanship award winners.

All of the seniors were asked to stand in the front of the room, introduce themselves, announce in which track event they competed  and share where they would be going to school next year.  There were at least fifteen kids;  handsome, fit, young and proud standing before us.  They spoke from the left side of the room towards the right: Virginia Tech, Virginia Tech, James Madison, Virginia Tech, William and Mary and it proceeded.  I smiled when one boy said North Carolina noting that someone was leaving the state.  Then one boy shyly said “unlike the rest, NOVA for two years and then Virginia Tech”. The line went on to Virginia Tech, UVA and Georgetown.

My heart sunk.  I don’t think anyone else noticed the discomfort emanating from this young man, but I couldn’t let it go.   He seemed ashamed of his choice and intimidated by all of the four year schools that his teammates were attending.

The pressure that these kids experience day in and day out can be overwhelming; from appearances to finances to grades, peer groups and college.  There seems to always be an opportunity for shame and comparison as a teen (and adult as well).

As I mentioned in this blog post , I have worked with many students attending Northern Virginia Community College.  Some students began at NOVA directly after high school and some started at another school and for various reasons decided that NOVA was a better fit for them.

It has been a great learning opportunity for me to work with these clients that are attending NOVA.  I’ve learned a lot about the NOVA system, its academics and its culture.   One client who had struggled at several other universities grabbed an opportunity at NOVA and soared.   He took his classes seriously and put a great deal of time into his studies.  He was thrilled when he found that he was getting all A’s and gained an entirely new outlook on academics and his own power to have success.

One of my clients struggles with learning challenges.  This client has embraced his studies at NOVA and also had success.  He took the placement exams before matriculating which placed him in the proper classes for his specific abilities.  He has enjoyed his classes and been able to receive the help that he needs with his specific challenges.

Another one of my clients always felt “dumb” at his private high school. He spent a semester at a larger university and decided that it was not the right fit for  him. Since being at NOVA, this client has become a new student; he feels comfortable in his classes, has felt encouraged to raise his hand and participate regularly.  He likes the fact that the pressure is less and it is a more relaxed atmosphere.

A few years ago, I was having a discussion with two friends.  One of them made a derogatory comment about someone going to NOVA.  I stopped her and requested that she re-evaluate her comment.  After working with all of these kids, some of who do have shame about attending NOVA, I have a better appreciation for their journey.  I want to promote the upside to community college; it can be right for so many.  With the price of college, many kids have to attend NOVA for economic reasons solely. And, as I have stated, sometimes it is just a better fit for some students.

I am really glad that my clients have taught me about positive aspects of community college and I hope to help shape others who have yet to see the benefits.

As much as the therapist in me wanted to approach the boy last night and tell him “it’s going to be okay”, the mother in me knew that both he, and my son, would have been mortified had I done something so outrageous (and my poor son has been witness to many an outrageous measure performed by this mother of his).  I do hope that someone tells that young man that it is okay and he is going to get exactly what he needs as he continues on his own personal academic path.


The Boomerang Teen Part 2

AirDancer

I said I would return with suggestions to avoid having your teen flop back into the house for an extended stay in the middle of a semester.  I make no guarantees, sometimes a one-way ticket home is inevitable and necessary, but here are some thoughts on how to prepare for a successful flight out of the nest.

I love the idea of sleep away camp. Any reader that has spotted one of my summer posts is aware of my proclivity towards all things camp.  I have promoted camp for infinite reasons (friendship, bonding, summer structure etc.) and one of the biggest reasons is for kids to get a taste of  being away from home.  There are many kinds of  camps that can meet this objective;   sports camps, Scout camps, academic camps and arts camps and they vary in length from a few days to an entire summer.

Camps provide a sense of independence for kids with the safety net of responsible adults who are not their parents to guide them.  At camp kids learn to manage their own clothes, toiletries and meals without mom and dad micromanaging all the details. If they miss a night of teeth brushing or lose a sock (or hundreds), it is all part of the process of learning to have some independence.  I have found that the kids that have spent time away from home for a period of time during their middle and high school years have had the easiest transition to college and have had  less risk for the boomerang swing.

When a teen has increased responsibility throughout high school, he will have an easier transition to college.  Freshmen start slowly, perhaps getting  more opportunities to socialize with peers in groups before they are juniors and driving independently. Many juniors and seniors obtain part-time jobs which teach them responsibility, time management and a bit about finances.   Extra-curricula activities also help a teen with independence; there are clubs with responsibilities, teams with obligations and bands and theater with commitments that the teen must learn to balance with academic and other expectations.

One of my biggest selling points with my clients and their parents is for the kids to become responsible for their own academics.  A freshman in high school should manage her own schedule by knowing when she has an exam, when papers are due and the status of her grades.  I encourage parents to be supportive and helpful WHEN ASKED, but to allow the student to manage his own work load.  The more autonomy a high school student has, the more success will occur in college.

Parents often tell me that their teen will fail if the parent lets go of the academic reins.  The best advice I ever got was at a back-to-school night when my oldest child’s teacher said “Parents, you have already completed second grade, it is their turn.”  Yes, it is their turn; their turn to learn,  their turn to succeed and their turn to fail.  I constantly stress to these parents that the fall is easier when they fail junior year before they are legal adults and still in high school than when they are half a state or country away, paying thousands of dollars for tuition and suddenly realizing that they don’t know how to manage their work load without mom leading the way. (Students with learning disabilities or attention challenges do require more parental supervision.  It is important to strike a balance between over-doing and supporting the student; not an easy task for many families).

My last thought is to address mental health issues if and when they present themselves.  If a child is predisposed to anxiety or depression and has struggled throughout her adolescence with symptoms of sadness, feeling overwhelmed or anger management issues, please GET HER HELP.   Sending a child off to college who is struggling emotionally can be a set-up for failure.  College is inherently stressful with its huge life transitions and rigorous academics.  If your teen seems to be struggling, getting him the help he needs before he leaves home can arm him with the extra tools he may need to have a successful college experience.

Again, sometimes things happen.  Unplanned trauma, anxiety or homesickness can occur; kids come home and it is okay.  There is always another path and other options, so don’t fret.

One last thought, have your kids learn to do their own laundry……if nothing else it will make for a more pleasant aromatic experience for the roommate.


The Boomerang Teen

AirDancer

I am dedicating this to all the parents who have kids home tomorrow either due to snow, teacher workdays or other various reasons.  Find yourself a few free moments and read a post or two. Laurie

As has been previously mentioned, I work with many adolescents.  I work with them both in high school and beyond. One population that I have had nice success with is the college kid who, for a variety of reasons, has returned home for a semester (or more).  I have worked with several kids who have become very depressed and/or anxious while away at college which has necessitated a medical leave of absence.  The schools’ counseling centers have been very supportive in such a scenario and huge advocates of the student taking the time off to heal.

Bringing your child home from college for mental health reasons is terrifying.  Many parents have shared their fearful trip of driving to the college to pick up the pieces of their child’s lost semester; kids so depressed they haven’t left their room in weeks, have fallen behind on all of their school work  and become so anxious about academic failure that the cycle becomes a virtual tornado whirling inside the poor kid’s soul.  After being dismissed from the mental health center and packing up the dorm,  the families find themselves in uncharted territory.  Our child is home, our child is really struggling, our child won’t get out of bed, our child has no peers around.  How can we make it right?

Enter Laurie Levine. When I  get the frantic call, I schedule the assessment for as soon as possible.  Usually the parents come in for the first session and I never see them again (they are left to pay the bill, contain the worry and get a vague update every few months).  That is good, that is how it should be; the teen establishes a nice rapport with me and begins to delve into his presenting problems in an independent and adult-like manner.

What went wrong at college? How is it that so many students are able to make it work in what appears to be a seamless manner when others find themselves back in their childhood beds struggling with mental health issues, legal charges or or sometimes somatic symptoms brought on by stress?

Each kid has his unique story.  Be it a predisposition to depression, an uncomfortable roommate scenario  triggering despondency or an over arduous academic load.  Sometimes college or this specific college is not a good fit for a specific student.  That is okay, it saddens me though, that to find the right fit there are often periods of despair and worry both for the student and the family.

I work with the teen on the initial complaints until she is feeling stabilized. Sometimes a referral to a psychiatrist is necessary when medication is indicated, other times weekly therapy isn’t enough and we bump up the intensity for a short time.  Usually, the crisis period is short lived (weeks to a  month) and then the task becomes identifying and processing deeper core issues to avoid a relapse back to the  malfunctioning  behaviors.

Meanwhile, there are many hours per week that the client is not in therapy.  Lying in bed should not be tolerated for more than a day and  half.  Family discussions about employment, local schooling and household chores can cause conflict especially when the teen is still feeling low.  I always encourage structure in one’s day, especially in the case of depression, he needs to get up, shower and have a reason to leave the house.

I am happy to say that the kids that I have worked with have  had good outcomes.  One student took a semester and a half off and then returned to his original school.  We did Skype sessions upon his return to school and then terminated after his first semester back because he was doing so well.  Another student struggled with such depression that after coming home, it was a struggle to just get her in for her session. After a year of good therapy and the proper medication regime, she found her calling in another field and attended a certification program. She is now working in her chosen career  and has not received therapy in over a year.  I’ve worked with several students that have settled in to some classes at Northern Virginia Community College during their time at home.  Most of them have had very positive experiences which has afforded them the time to work on their mental health challenges while also continuing with their education.

You are probably thinking: “Thanks Laurie for sharing your professional experiences with us, but what can we do to avoid being the next boomerang family on your caseload?”  I will fully oblige with such recommendations in a Part 2 to this post.  Give me a few days to collect my thoughts and I will be back here with brilliant (?) suggestions.


What may really be going on with your high school senior

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He got in to ________.    She was deferred from ___________.    He was rejected from ________.   Two more applications to submit.    Anyone know how to fill out the FAFSA?

This is what I have been hearing from seniors in high school and their parents for the past couple of weeks.  The SATs/ACTs/ABCs, the essays, the waiting and that email (in my day it was a thin or thick letter) that elicits exaltation or deep sadness within one click of the mouse.  And, these are just the ones that applied early or rolling admission – this will continue over  the next few months until the big push in April when all colleges will have admitted their incoming freshman class.

I have worked with many seniors in high school.  It is such a pivotal time. In some ways it is a ticket out, a ticket to freedom and a move towards independence.  In many ways it is a very scary time.  As much as the  seniors are flexing their muscles to be on their own, there is something to be said for home cooking, clean clothes and mom and dad lurking around to ensure that life tasks have been checked off, paid for and handled.

Early in my career I worked in high schools and observed the precarious nature of that status of “senior”.  The seniors were the leaders of the school, captains of the teams  and enjoyed privileges of the upper-most upperclassmen (definitely the best parking spots and lunch tables). And yet, in my office they presented as anxious and vulnerable. Would they get in to a college? Would they be able to handle the work load, the transition and the independence?

It is normal to feel apprehensive.  I continually reassure my senior clients that they are not alone in these fears.  They have been under so much pressure since junior year jumping  through all of the “get into college” hoops that they have barely had a moment to ponder what it all means.

Enter second semester senior year, also known as “senioritis” or “senior slump”.   The applications have been submitted; some have heard from schools and some are still waiting.  Grades matter, but not as much as  before.  There is time again to pause, reflect and realize “HOLY COW – I AM GOING TO GRADUATE”.

Seniors may experience this as a sudden shock, a slow building of anxiety or depression or  via other symptoms like withdrawal from friends or a drop in grades.   Some of my clients have suddenly brought home D’s and F’s after a high school career of A’s and B’s.  I talk to them frankly about self-sabatoge; if they have anxiety about graduation and leaving home, a handful of F’s could easily upend that plan without having to admit “I’m nervous about the next step”. It can be easier to crash and burn through that last English credit than have to face the reality that this graduation thing is actually going to happen.

We adults often forget how emotional and challenging this time can be.  Teachers, parents and other adults act as  cheerleaders raving about graduation and the exciting changes that are coming. But the awareness of these trepidatious months can be really helpful;  attend to your seniors, acknowledge that this is a big time of transition and it is okay to feel uneasy or anxious.  They may just appreciate it enough to stick around for dinner one night this week.


Thanksgiving Thoughts

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The football game is on.  One kid is sitting  with me doing  homework, one is getting ready for bed and the college kid is home stirring up the pot that we call home.  It’s louder, sassier and more chaotic when we are all here under one roof, but it is The Nut House as we know it  and I wouldn’t trade it (well, most days).

Many of my friends and clients have endured the big transition of sending a child off to college and figuring out the ‘new normal’ with a less than full house.  I’ve heard talk about accidentally setting too many plates at the table, having to rework a grocery list to accommodate less mouths and scheduling a Skype call for  birthday celebrations.

Enter Thanksgiving Break.  The college kid comes home and sleeps his way through the early morning bus runs that the siblings must suffer for the first part of the week, the bathroom schedule is upended and there are suddenly 137 shoes and jackets to trip over  as opposed to the mere 82 that have become my routine land mines.    This ‘new normal’ that most families have adapted to throughout the fall is now interrupted and we all transition again.

It’s only been three months and yet the college kid has done a one-eighty.  An entirely new living situation, meal routine and academic regiment.  New friends, infinite experiences, unbridled freedom and yet, now their parents want to know where they are.

I read a discussion online by a group of parents of freshman about whether to enforce a curfew when their child was home for break.  I read another discussion from another group of parents worrying about their freshman being able to negotiate the airport and all that entails to arrive safely home to their excited, worried and wanting-to-parent-but-not-sure-how  parents.

Once again, it will be a learning experience for all of us, parents and kids alike.  A beautiful and brilliant woman reminded me “one day he will be a parent and he will know that you yelled at him out of fear. Until then – just think about how we felt when we were 18 and so desperate to prove that we could manage by ourselves, and how galling it was to find out that we couldn’t”.

Happy and healthy Thanksgiving to all of the new freshman, their loving parents and everyone else that happens to still be reading.


College Daze

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I went to college. I had roommates and exams and parties. I stayed up late and slept even later. I hibernated in the library for what felt like days and existed in a world of 18-22 year olds.   We ate at weird times and were usually awake while the rest of the world was sleeping.

Fast forward thirty years (yes, my 30th high school reunion is this weekend).

I just returned from my first  Parents Weekend at my son’s university.  The students are young and fit and beautiful and young.  There were parents EVERYWHERE.   The car line in front of the dorm was like pre-school pickup; parents shuttling their kids to dinner, brunch and shopping trips to Target. My son remarked how different the campus looked this weekend with all of us baby-boomer parents schlepping behind our eighteen year olds.

A mere eight weeks ago these “rising freshmen” were anxious, new and still a little clingy as we dragged them through Bed Bath and Beyond,  and every other big-box store to stock their dorm rooms for the year.  They seem to have acclimated themselves to this new way of life; the dorm room smelled like sweaty sneakers, the back pack looked broken in and there were nods, hello’s and a few hugs to classmates as my son showed us campus from his viewpoint.

I learned about the “swiping” of the card which gets one  in to the food halls, the gym and many other campus venues.  I was instructed about when and where they were permitted to eat what and about these periods called “late night” dining; that would be the “9:30pm I haven’t had dinner because I got up at 12:00pm meal” that the campus  provides for these college students and their unique  daily  routines.

My son pointed out the classrooms, the faculty offices and the big and beautiful new student center adjacent to the gorgeous campus  pool.  I saw his particular nook at the on-campus Starbucks where he gets most of his work done (“I like the white noise, it’s not too quiet like the library, but not loud and distracting”) and the Student Government Office where he and his peers will convene weekly  as  members of the newly elected student government (may they have better luck than their Federal counterparts).

So many thoughts as a parent were swirling through my head, first and foremost being, when can I go to sleep since  I have been up since 5:30am and you rolled out of bed when we landed at the airport? But seriously, how their lives have changed so much in just two months.  Which experiences will be the impetus to their future adult lives? Who from this campus  will be their lifelong friends, partners or spouses?

It was also interesting to note how the freshman are learning to negotiate their way through life challenges.  One girl had an ear infection and had to spend three hours waiting at the health clinic because she hadn’t made an appointment only to realize she had no cash on her to purchase her prescription. A few classmates switched majors and thus have  an entirely new schedule from the one that they had constructed over the summer with mom and dad by their side.  There have been  fights, injuries and student probationary periods prompted by overindulging in underage drinking and I read a flyer on the dorm wall about “alerts” that a professor will send home if there is an academic concern.

The freshman are learning that the “Welcome to Adulthood” banner includes the joy of the greatest.party.evah. and the realization that “it is time to do some work” all wrapped up in the same college experience .   I am grateful that these students have the opportunity to wear the banner in a somewhat protected environment.   There are faculty, staff, resident advisors and upperclassmen all available to share both the joys and the great lessons of the freshman year.

May all the Freshman of 2013-2014 find joy, learning, great adventures and safety this year (and don’t forget to call your parents, okay, a text will suffice!)

Addendum:  Between completing this post and making final edits, I got a text from my son “I think I’m going to go to the health center to get my sinuses checked out”. Since he had been having symptoms all weekend, I praised his idea and reminded him to make an appointment to avoid a three hour wait!