On the Road to Adulthood: Emotionally Preparing Teens for College

Behavioral Health Behavioral Health

It’s about five months and counting until high school seniors head off to college. For teens who are dealing with depression, anxiety, or other behavioral health issues, this time can be especially stressful. With suicide the second leading cause of death among college students,1 it’s more critical than ever to equip these young adults with effective coping strategies and tools before they venture out on their own.

Nicole Zuber, MD, inpatient psychiatrist at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health and board certified in adult and child/adolescent psychiatry, explains that while teens generally want to be independent young adults, they don’t always possess the skills they need to do so. She offers the following six strategies for behavioral health professionals seeing teenage patients who will soon be leaving home. 

On the Road to Adulthood: Emotionally Preparing Teens for College

1. Manage Expectations

According to Dr. Zuber, discussing expectations is a significant component to emotionally preparing teens for college. When expectations are too high, resulting feelings of disappointment can worsen issues like depression and anxiety. Change is not always easy, and students are likely to face at least a few challenges in their new environment. 

“We’re all dreamers, especially at age 18,” says Dr. Zuber. “Talking through a young person’s vision of what college may be like—and using specific examples—is an ideal place to start examining expectations.”

Considering individual preferences before planning schedules is also important. For example, some students may be more comfortable in classes with a small group dynamic than in a lecture hall. Likewise, classes that start later in the morning may help facilitate a smoother transition for those who are not early risers. 

2. Focus on Goals

Behavioral health professionals can help patients set goalsby using the SMART approach. These are goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based. Rather than setting a goal to “do well,” this means getting more specific, such as setting a goal to maintain a B average across all five classes during the first semester. 

Short-term goals should be considered—such as goals for the first month—along with longer-term goals, like for the first semester. This approach can help teens feel more grounded and less overwhelmed during the transition.

3. Encourage Time Management and Balance

Teens are accustomed to highly routine schedules in high school, so applying that concept to college life can be helpful. Therapists can encourage their teen patients to use cell phones to create daily schedules that incorporate time for academics and studying, meals, social activities, and even exercise. 

“Academics are important, but this is also a time for teens to learn about themselves and enjoy the freedom to explore new possibilities in life,” says Dr. Zuber. “Having a daily schedule that incorporates all types of activities can help them feel more organized while creating a healthy balance.”

4. Emphasize Social Skills

Loneliness and isolation can increase the likelihood of behavioral health problems and the risk of suicide. Because high schoolers with established social networks may not think about the process of making new friends, it’s another key topic for therapists. Talking through how they might connect with their roommates or other students on campus in advance is beneficial. Thinking about hobbies or social clubs that they may want to pursue can also present opportunities to create new friendships. 

5. Involve Parents

Just as teens need to prepare for the transition to college, parents need to prepare for the process of giving them freedom. Letting go can be difficult, and behavioral health professionals can examine the family system and assist parents with tools for doing so. When parents give teens more responsibility and opportunities to be independent over the six months prior to a teen’s departure, the process is made easier.

6. Connect with On-Campus Resources 

Most colleges and universities have established systems and resources to provide students with mental health support, along with student health and well-being centers. Therapists can recommend that teens familiarize themselves with these resources and, if needed, connect with them before college begins. Having a trusted adult resource on campus who can be consulted before an issue becomes a crisis is invaluable.

When additional support is needed, Princeton House offers a Young Adult Program with partial hospital and intensive outpatient options for young people ages 18 to 25. The program is tailored to the unique needs of this age group, and our skilled team works closely and collaboratively with schools, colleges, and universities as needed.


As teens become adults, it’s important to remember that happiness, independence, and success are defined differently for everyone,” adds Dr. Zuber. “Behavioral health professionals can play a key role in helping them individualize those concepts and set the stage for a smoother transition.”


For more information about the Young Adult Program at Princeton House, click here or call 888.437.1610.

Article as seen in the Spring 2018 issue of Princeton House Behavioral Health.

(1) American College Health Association