If you’re the parents of a 17-year-old, the chances are that there’s one topic that dominates the family agenda — next steps. Learn to cope with times without turning into a nervous wreck.
As Grades are good. Maybe your daughter or son has a clear idea of a future career; maybe not. But it would be surprising if university, perhaps abroad, was not one of the options on the table. This is where perceptions start to diverge. You see things one way, and your child might see them quite differently.
You’re probably going through all those serious thoughts that parents think: the right choice, career prospects, and best university. Quietly, you might also be thinking about your baby flying the nest and worrying about whether she/he will cope and how you can keep her/him on the straight and narrow when she/he is thousands of miles away.
Your children, on the other hand, might be dreaming of parties, bungee-jumping, escape at last! They’ll be looking at Facebook posts from friends, brothers or sisters already at university, and they’ll be desperate for the life they see — travel, fun, new friends. Photos of people in lectures and working on assignments don’t tend to show up on Facebook, but this is familiar territory. It’s the same as school, right? But quietly they might be thinking, “Will I cope? Will I be homesick? What if I’m not as smart as everyone tells me I am?”
So at least you have some common ground, which is that you both have your secret fears.
As any parent of teenagers knows, common ground is not always easy to maintain. In fact, it’s shifting all the time. And you’re the one who has to struggle to keep connected as your children’s opinions, tastes and emotional maturity rapidly evolves.
So it makes sense to take the opportunity presented by the scary unknown and to do a bit of planning, hopefully at moments when you get an attentive audience.
When theory really does count
One useful approach to thinking about study abroad is to use the structure of Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ as the framework.
He defined five levels of need. His theory states that if you don’t get past one level, it’s not easy to proceed to the next. The levels are:
1. Physiological: This is what you need to survive: food, shelter, warmth. In the case of your daughter, think about what clothes she will need. Will she eat the right things? What accommodation is most suitable?
2. Safety and security: Will she need a car (probably not if she’s living on campus)? What are the no-go areas where she’ll be living? Does she have self-defence training? Does she have anti-virus software on her laptop? Does she have travel insurance? Does she have contents insurance in case she loses her phone? Is she aware of the dos and don’ts of travelling alone? Does she have first-aid training or medical insurance? What about finding a clinic?
3. Love and belonging: She’ll probably know more about social media than you do, but one of the biggest problems in the first few months at university for many students is loneliness and isolation. Do you have a plan for regular contact? Do you have an application like Skype video? Has she thought about what kind of college societies she might join?
Here’s a delicate one. Does she have any experience in interacting with the opposite gender? That’s a safety issue also — both physical and emotional. So a little bit of preparation about things that can happen and how to deal with them would come in handy.
Once you go up the levels, it will be more and more down to your children to work things out for themselves. We’re moving from the practical to the emotional and much depends on their ability to deal with their emotions, to create empathy, to relate to groups of people and to make sure that they are able to set an agenda socially. Along with motivation, these are the components of what psychologist and author Daniel Goleman calls ‘emotional intelligence’.
Motivation plays a major part in the final two of Maslow’s Hierarchy.
4. Esteem: This means both self-esteem and winning the respect and affection of others. It can be a big shock for your daughter to find that after being a big fish at school, she’s a tiny minnow swimming in a big lake of equally talented people at university. She needs to be prepared for that.
Lack of confidence can easily lead her to slide into isolation and loneliness. So it’s important that she knows where she can get help; perhaps the university counselling service, and yes, perhaps even Mum and Dad! You should also encourage her to find a mentor, perhaps a member of staff or a student in a higher year, whom she can trust and confide in.
5. Self-actualisation: This is the ultimate level. Sometimes we achieve things that change, define and make sense of our lives. Going to university is surely not just about getting a piece of paper at the end of three or four years. It’s much more than that. It is an opportunity to see the world, understand different cultures, do new things and feel good about what we achieve.
So no matter how anxious you are for your daughter to get the top grades, do encourage her to spread her wings and seek achievements and experience beyond the narrow confines of study. There’s a very practical reason for this, by the way.
When she’s applying for her first job, she will be up against people who not only achieved a good degree, but can provide evidence of a host of life skills. Perhaps they took part in an earthquake relief project, created a new college society or raised money for charity through organising events. If all she’s done in that time is lock herself away and study, she will be at a disadvantage.
Steve Royston, an expert, notes that one final topic more or less permeates all the levels — money.
“When I started at university, I had a grant each term. These were the days — now sadly long gone — when in the UK many people actually received money for going to university instead of racking up debt. Unfortunately I blew my grant in the first two weeks,” says Royston.
One of the most consistent trends among students going off to university is their inability to handle money. Some but not all schools provide guidance. So realistically, it’s down to you as parents to make sure that your daughter understands the basics of financial self-management: how to budget, how to use banks and credit cards, what to do if the money runs out. Actually, money management is not just practical; it’s psychological as well. Think of compulsive shopping.
So did you think that your daughter going off to university was the beginning of independence?
“As the father of two daughters who have successfully graduated from university, I can tell you what I suspect you know already: you never stop worrying and you never shut down the Bank of Mum and Dad,” he explains.
Some parents worry about their baby being mislead and yet most students tend to uphold their family values even more when they are at university, something that is a credit to you as a parent.
But there are ways to anticipate the bumpy ride ahead. And a bit of planning, a bit of thinking on both sides and a few practical steps can go a long way towards avoiding too many of the inevitable dramas and crises.
Steve Royston is the managing director of Anfield Information, a British/US-owned company that provides consultancy for the development of products and materials in the areas of training, education, multimedia, technical information, localisation and marketing communications. He co-designed Going West, an action learning programme for students planning to study at foreign universities.
His personal blog is at www.59steps.wordpress.com.