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6 Important Skills Your Kid Needs for College

Step back and let your kid develop these social-emotional skills

Published on: September 06, 2019

College student and preofessor

When we think of the resume needed to get into college, we think high test scores, top grades and class rigor. But to succeed in college, students also need well-developed social-emotional skills to handle the unavoidable bumps of young adulthood.

Anxiety in college ranks at an all-time high: More than 60 percent of students reported “overwhelming anxiety” in 2018, according to an American College Health Association report. Students may experience anxiety because they’re underequipped to handle the inevitable obstacles of life — what we now call “adulting”.   

Here are six social-emotional skills experts say teens need to thrive in college:

1. Self-management

This one’s a biggie that includes executive function, responsible decision-making and risk management. Executive function skills facilitate good time-management, effective study habits and getting up on time for class. College is less structured than high school, and campus officials say time-management is the biggest issue students cope with as new arrivals. Besides a more free-wheeling schedule, they’re navigating group living, parties and substance use — along with amped-up academics. Self-management is developmental and students will struggle, but campuses have resources to help. 

2. Persistence

College students need persistence to problem-solve all kinds of issues. A laptop malfunction, a failed test or scholarship funds that weren't properly applied to a tuition bill. Persistence takes practice — and parents getting out of the way so kids can problem-solve starting at younger ages.

“Part of persistence is the ability to bounce back, and you’re not going to be persistent unless you have the emotional resilience to bounce back,” says B. Janet Hibbs, Ph.D., family psychologist and co-author of “The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years.” 

3. Flexibility

This skill is the opposite of rigidity, which keeps teens — or anyone — stuck when they can’t solve a problem, Hibbs says. Getting stuck can lead to feeling hopeless and then shutting down. But students need to tolerate and manage the discomfort they experience in new surroundings. That includes advocating for themselves without someone from home intervening on their behalf. 

4. Relationship skills

New friendships are easy to maintain when they’re going well, but teens will face challenges with roommates and college peers, and the larger question is how skilled are they at working out these issues. Conflict-resolution skills and flexibility are key to handling different types of temperaments and social situations.  

5. Self-awareness

Being self-aware helps teens ask for assistance and engage in their environment with an open mindset. New college students think they need to figure things out on their own — but asking for help is a sign of maturity. In today’s competitive culture, students are quick to fall into distorted thinking and destructive perfectionism, panicking about a low test score and wondering whether they have what it takes, Hibbs says. She and co-author Anthony Rostain call it “Fear of Not Making It” or FONMI.

“It’s rooted in anxiety and comes about more and more these days because students believe that life is linear and the extremely narrow path is the good life, and if they make a misstep, they’re doomed,” Hibbs says. Being able to put missteps in perspective is critical for bouncing back.      

6. Self-acceptance

This is the ability to tolerate your own faults and mistakes and face them without feeling too guilty or ashamed. According to Hibbs, self-acceptance is the pinnacle of emotional maturity. It’s a life skill most of us adults are still working on. Students need to be able to weather obstacles without beating themselves up.  

So... how do we help teens develop these skills? 

When students head off for college without these skills, they’re more vulnerable to their blunders, Hibbs says. They don’t know what’s normal to experience, so they catastrophize and suffer in silence.

In her book “How to Raise an Adult,” Julie Lythcott-Haims features a general skills list for 18-year-olds, including being able to talk to strangers (which builds that asking-for-help muscle), handling their own transportation and managing money. She and Hibbs encourage parents to give kids chores, laundry, and cooking tasks to develop life skills, as well as genuine opportunity to problem-solve — with guidance in the wings. Figure out what to let go of and let kids navigate the outcomes. 

It's also important to listen and put on your poker face when kids share their feelings, and avoid communicating your own anxiety about how they’re handling things, Hibbs says. Let teens fail at something before senior year to experience floundering and recovering. Ask them what their plan is (in a sincere tone) without telling them what to do. Consider not monitoring grades in freshman year of high school to see how it goes — there’s time to regroup.

“They’re going to make poor choices, but they need the space to do that or they won’t grow up,” Hibbs says. 

Teens are quick studies, and the growth in the first year of college alone will amaze you. But step back now, during the high school years — if you haven’t — because practice builds confidence and resilience. 

The conversation you need to have now

Join ParentMap and Seattle Children's on Sept. 23 for a critical conversation about youth mental health and learn how to talk to your teen about this important topic.

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