When your child starts university, life changes forever. It is quite likely that you have already faced many challenges as your son or daughter goes through adolescence, increasingly diverse life experiences and a series of important exams, but starting university is a whole new ball game.
Your role as a parent is always changing, but when your child starts university you will face the biggest change of all. They have finally flown the nest and cut the apron strings, and you are no longer there to offer the 24/7 support, be it emotional or financial (although the Bank of Mum and Dad will still help out long after they graduate).
Starting university will bring a mixture of emotions for everybody. It is an incredibly exciting time, but also extremely daunting. Everyone is out of their comfort zone, but there are many ways you can smooth this transition into adult life and the big, bad world that your child will now be exposed to, by addressing four key things in helping your child prepare for university and a new way of life.
Practice and planning
Visit the university
If you are fortunate to have secured university accommodation in halls of residence, it is very useful if you are able to visit the campus to have a look before the big day arrives, and the same applies to a student flat or house. This allows your child to become familiar with the room and the facilities in the building and to enable you to picture what you might need to brighten the room or house up and make general life much easier.
Even if you are not able to access the room or student house where your child will be staying, visit the area. You can see what shops and cafes are available, have a drink or a meal nearby to make the area seem more familiar, homely and less intimidating. You can also spend time working out where key shops and services are like a launderette, doctors, chemists, supermarket and useful ‘essentials’ shops like Wilkinsons.
Finally, you should work out a route from your child’s accommodation to their lectures or the campus where they will be on their first day. In a strange town or city finding directions can be confusing, and with enough to worry about already, you don’t want them being late on their first day.
Learn some life skills
By now it is likely that your child is already helping around the house or is reasonably independent. So introducing them to the essential skills in looking after themselves may not be too difficult. They will need to learn basic cooking skills, hygiene, how to use a washing machine and what basic essentials you will need to shop for on a weekly basis.
It would be useful to let them do more around the house in the summer leading up to the first university term. Introduce them to the vacuum cleaner, and let them cook once a week and try out a few recipes. You can jot down some of their favourite recipes and ingredients and let them cook for the whole family. They may feel embarrassed a few weeks later and rip the recipes up before their new friends see them, but as long as they can keep cooking them that’s fine.
Another big factor in gently encouraging your child to go it alone and survive university life is timekeeping and organisation. They will no longer have you as a personal alarm clock, and on hand to ensure they have some breakfast, clean clothes and all the books and resources they need for the day’s lectures. So gradually prepare them to be organised and to go through the thought process of what they need for the next day.
The final life skill and perhaps the most important is about safety. Again, a lot of this might already have been covered, and it can be a delicate area to address when talking to a growing child who is fast becoming an adult. But knowing the essentials about sex, drugs, alcohol, respect and who to trust can be crucial when your child is about to meet lots of new people and experience lots of new things.
It goes without saying that there is a huge leap from juggling some weekly pocket money to being solely responsible for your own money and wellbeing, and lessons learnt now about managing finance can become the most important lessons your child will ever take on board.
There is no doubt that finance is the key issue when preparing your child for university life, and is something that, in reality, you need to start considering up to a decade before it actually happens. Financing a three or four year university course doesn’t just include tuition fees, which can checkout at several thousand pounds, but also includes accommodation fees, insurance and general living costs. It is a huge amount to consider and manage, and the more independence your child has in the run-up to this eventuality the better. But if they are living at home there is only so much financial freedom they are likely to experience.
Considering different investment or saving schemes is a way in which you can create a pot of money to help finance your child’s university life, and this can be done at any time, the sooner the better. But you will also need to establish an agreement as to how much you are prepared to help your child out financially. While you won’t want to see your child in financial strife, there needs to be an agreed limit to how much you can bail them out, for your own benefit and for theirs.
Teaching your child how to budget is obviously the first place to start. Understanding the costs of accommodation, utilities costs (where applicable), phone tariffs, clothes and food and how that needs to be spread over a week or a month is an essential life lesson, so you need to go through this during the countdown to the big day. Inevitably, a reserve for ‘going out’ and partying will develop, which is fine as long as it can be managed sensibly. Also, learning how and where to ‘shop smart’ is a key skill that is adaptable for the rest of their lives.
If necessary, your child might want to get a part-time job while at university, it is very common and quite often a good way to introduce them to life in a new place and a rewarding way to learn some independence. So encourage and help them with this. Otherwise, your role is in contributing an agreed amount of finance and educating them on managing it. This will involve finding a suitable student bank account with easy access and a good overdraft facility, while some bank accounts also come with attractive ‘extras’, such as railcards or insurance.
What financial help is available to them through the university? There are often hardship funds, which might not be necessary, but it’s a comfort to know they are there. You can research bursaries or grants at your particular university, although these are quite rare. And of course there are student loans, which have become a staple ingredient of student life. While a student loan is perfectly acceptable, your child needs to understand the responsibility taken on by the loan and they also need to understand the issues and dangers of ‘harsh debt’, such as taking on pay day loans or other unscrupulous forms of lending.
The transition from old friends to new friends is a strange time that your child will need some help with and preparation for. The first few weeks of university life can be the most important by far, as that is when everything is happening and your child will experience a frenzy of events, experiences and new people. It can be overwhelming and they will either sink or swim, but you need to encourage them to stick with it. There can be a temptation to rush home for the first weekend, or every weekend, but they will be missing out on so much. So tempting though it is, you need to reassure them that they are better having fun away from home.
Friendships are a difficult thing to handle at this age at the best of times, but particularly so at university. You don’t know who to trust, you are eager to please and to make new friends, and back at home you have long-standing friends or maybe even partners who have no role in this new life. In modern times, however, it has never been easier to keep in touch with people by text, email, Skype or social media, so that is how your child needs to manage it, and rather than heading home at the first opportunity, they should be joining clubs, groups or societies and making new friends.
Okay, this might be the boring bit that they don’t want to discuss, but academically, the leap from A-Levels to a degree or other university course is vast. You need to talk about the organisation, time management, self-motivation and dedication involved, but you can also help them find what resources are available.
Universities have an infrastructure of information, libraries and personal support to help with studies, and it is useful to know what is there and where to find it before the course starts. This may even extend to finding out about the university’s counselling support, which can help with people struggling with the course itself and also to discuss debt management or personal issues.
An essentials pack
Once you have talked through the basics of the university and accommodation set-up, essential life skills, finance, friendships and studies, you can start to build a pack of essentials for your child to take with them, and to ease them through those first few difficult weeks.
This is an important task as a parent, as it allows you to let them go, but also maintain an element of subliminal control in knowing they have some key things with them. An essentials pack can include some frozen meals from home for the first few days, laundry items, stationary items, batteries and chargers, a first aid kit, and some form of alarm for that first morning at university!
On the day
When the day finally comes it can be a very emotional time and the build up to actually packing the car and heading off can either be deeply uncomfortable or a frenzy of excitement and worry. Either way, you should aim to make the day as stress-free as possible by not arranging too much other than this one thing, and obviously having everything prepared in terms of belongings and directions.
Your main aim when arriving at the accommodation is simply to get the room set up and comfortable and not to overstay your welcome. Before you go you should make sure they know what to do and where to go in the morning, but your child may be either anxious to get rid of you, or you will simply make the situation more traumatic by drawing out a long goodbye.
Coping with empty nest syndrome
Hard as it may seem, you need to leave your child and let them fly. Leaving them on their own in a strange room in a strange town can be very difficult, but it is also tremendously exciting and something you simply have to do, in order for them to move on to the next stage of their development.
You can agree a minimum amount of contact for the next few days and after that you will soon find a routine that suits everyone, but it is better to go ‘cold turkey’ for at least a couple of days to allow them to adjust and settle into their new life. Leave the onus on them to contact you when they are ready. They won’t forget you and they will have plenty to tell you. Oh, and leave the tears for the car journey home.