A mixed group of six young people chatting and laughing as they walk along a tree lined street.

How to help your child manage the transition to university

5 min read
08 September 2022

Topics mentioned: transitions, mental health at university, anxiety, getting support from mental health services

About: Nearly 426,000 young people will start university in the next few weeks; with new studies, places and people. Often they’ll be living away from home for the first time too. Exciting - and the result of hard work – this time can also feel daunting or lonely, for students and parents alike. So how can parents help their young adult children prepare emotionally and practically?

 

Base the help you give your child on their needs

Some need more support than others. That’s fine. Your child may be on top of everything from bank accounts to module registration, or they may feel overwhelmed and frozen. Young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) or mental health conditions are especially likely to need extra help to identify and complete tasks, and to minimise anxiety around transition.

  • My son has ASD and anxiety. We’re focussing on him managing medication, cooking basics and knowing how to ask for help if needed. More responsibilities can follow later.
    Anna, parent
  • We’re making the admin less overwhelming by doing it together. I’m encouraging my son to take the lead on one task at a time, while also quietly checking things off my 'to do' list.
    Lynne, parent

Work on practical life skills

Your child will need to be more self-sufficient than before, especially if living away. Teach them a handful of simple, cheap meals to cook on rotation and make sure they can use a washing machine (but accept the possibility of many packet noodles and grey laundry).

Careful planning now can reduce money worries later, particularly if finances are very tight. UCAS and Student Minds have advice on budgeting and financial support possibilities. Even financially comfortable students can struggle with budgeting, and there may be costs they haven’t considered (books, bills, travel, for instance). 

Talk about wellbeing and mental health

Ask how they are feeling - and listen. Preparations like shopping or packing can facilitate a chat that doesn’t feel too direct. (See our guide to talking to your child about mental health for more tips.) Your child may feel sad leaving family and friends; nervous about meeting new people; worried about academic pressure; excited to get started. Focus on positives, but acknowledge their concerns. Reassure them that a range of emotions is normal.

Like any significant change, starting university can understandably lead to feelings of insecurity, anxiety and at times unhappiness or even distress. This doesn’t mean your child has a mental health problem. It’s important you affirm what they’re going through, but also express hope that they can find a way to manage these feelings.
Pscyhotherapist and YoungMinds Professional Adviser

Many young people struggle with wellbeing for the first time at university, so make sure they’re aware of student support services on campus should they need them. The university website should have details. UCAS has information about types of help, and Student Space has services listings for universities in England and Wales.

If your child has mental health or other additional needs this is really important. Encourage them to register promptly with student support services and GP at university and to take up Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) if they haven’t already. Working together on a plan to follow if things feel difficult will reassure you both.

Encourage healthy routines and self-care

Exercise, fresh air, sleep and vegetables aren’t typically top fresher priorities, but it’s still worth championing good habits. Encourage your child to identify things they know help them if they’re feeling low or overwhelmed; and how they can build these into university life. It could be joining a relevant club, or just knowing they don’t have to do everything, and that a favourite film or early night is fine. Our guide to self-care has more ideas.

Booking my son’s accommodation prompted a discussion about what he’ll need, but also what he'd like to take to make it feel like home.
Liz, parent

Manage expectations, and give it time

Young people’s expectations - of experiences and of themselves - aren’t always realistic. This can lead to disappointment and lower self-esteem. Encourage your child not to compare their experiences to what they might see on social media. The reality is that no-one enjoys everything about university life, all of the time. Social activity may feel overwhelming; they may not make friends immediately; independent study might feel unexpectedly challenging. Reassure them it takes time to settle, that things often get better, and that they can always talk to you about it.

If it doesn’t work out, help them find and feel positive about other options that are right for them.

  • My daughter had a stressful time with results and clearing, so starting university was tough. She used the five second tip when Freshers’ Week felt intimidating. Approach anyone and say, 'Hi my name is xx how are you?’ It was easier to psych herself up because it could be over in five seconds.
    Jennifer, parent
  • The more you put yourself out there, the more likely you are to find your tribe. Everyone says join a club, but really do. My daughter wasn’t a talented hockey player but found a fantastic group of friends that way.
    Katie, parent

Discuss your keeping in touch plan

Your child needs to know they can contact you, but don’t expect too much. Home contact is very important, but young adults also need space to develop independence. Fixed check-in times work for some, but may feel like a bind if your child is busy, so be flexible. A pet photo or snippet of sibling news can be a less demanding communication prompt than too many “How are you? What are you doing?” calls.

Let them know you’re there for them night and day and to just call if they need you, rather than putting the onus on them to keep to a schedule.
Jennifer, parent

Look after yourself

This is a huge transition for you as well. It’s completely understandable to feel sad, lonely or worried about your child coping. Or you may feel guilt, or relief, if family relationships have been difficult. Your emotions may take you by surprise. However you feel, try not to project this onto your child, to avoid fuelling their anxiety or making them feel guilty.

Be kind to yourself. Could you start a new hobby, spend more time with friends, or just appreciate an un-raided fridge? For more information and support see our parents’ guide to looking after yourself.

  • Try not to think of it as leaving home, which is overwhelming, but in terms of weeks, which is less daunting. They will be home for Christmas before we know it.
    Sarah, parent
  • The biggest challenge is accepting that the child who’s been your responsibility and joy for 18 years is starting their own journey. I'm trying to show him I have confidence he will be fine, while also being honest about how much I love and will miss him
    Lynne, parent
  • I was shocked that my reaction felt like grief. It took a long time to lift. He's going into his third year now and it's lovely when he is home, but him being away feels normal.
    Kara, parent
  • I'm a single parent, with an only child. I've joined a running club. Hopefully I will get fit, meet new friends and not focus on the empty nest.
    Becky, parent

Get advice and read more blogs from parents and young people

Where to find support

  • Student Minds

    Supports students to look after their mental health by providing information and advice.

    They also provide details about local services offered by universities and information on how you can access support group programmes.

    You can call or email for more information (this is not a helpline).

  • The Mix

    Free, short-term online counselling for young people aged 25 or under. Their website also provides lots of information and advice about mental health and wellbeing. 

    Email support is available via their online contact form.

    They have a free 1-2-1 webchat service available during opening hours.

    Opening times:
    4pm - 11pm, Monday - Friday
  • Nightline

    A free, confidential listening service for you to talk about anything that is on your mind.

    Services and opening times vary from institution to institution, but often there is a phone, text, email and live chat service.

    See if your university has a nightline listening service.

    Opening times:
    Varies from university to university

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