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Building Independence in College-Aged Kids

By Tasha Howard, Extension Assistant Professor & Sydney Samuelson, Extension Intern Mom dropping her son off at college

The move to college is like standing on the end of the high dive. Students are assured that once they’re in the water life is great, but the fall still seems incredibly scary. Watching a child take this leap can be equally terrifying for parents. As much as they might want to, parents can’t build a ladder for their child to safely climb down.

Unless the soon-to-be college student knows the proper way to land into their university experience, it could be painful. The secret to a successful dive? Independence.

Here are a few tips to build independence in students who have recently left or are about to leave for college:

 #1: Help students develop skills they’ll need in college by giving them the reins now (while they’re on a relatively safe horse).

Moving out for college is a whirlwind of firsts for students. This will likely be the first time they’ll live away from home, create a budget, be responsible to clean their entire living space, set schedules, and be solely responsible for their academics. By the time they head to college, students have probably cooked a meal and changed a load of laundry, however, this doesn’t mean they are ready to live on their own. One of the best ways to help youth master skills they will need to be independent is for parents to invite them to participate in projects, ask questions, and be involved, rather than doing the tasks for them (Child Mind Institute, 2020). Letting young adults take more responsibility will not only prepare them for handling even more later, but it will lighten the parents' workload. Additionally, giving them opportunities to make decisions and live with the consequences at home creates a place to practice in a safer environment (Emerson, 2019).

 #2: Let your student do all the talking with the school.

Communication skills are vital to being independent. A great way for students to expand this talent is by communicating with their school. By having all the talking happen between the college and the student themselves, students will learn to speak up and problem solve without relying on their parents. Of course, this doesn’t mean parents can’t help, but parents should guide their children towards a solution instead of solving problems for them.

 #3: Make sure they know that most colleges have great support systems.

Being independent doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help! Colleges are aware that the best way for their students to learn is to help them feel safe and at home. Students should know where to find the resources available to them at their college. There will be everything from libraries and mental health counselors to medical care and tutoring. Let them know that there is no shame in needing help, and their experience will be much easier if they find the help they need.

#4: Encourage students to get involved socially.

Part of independence is finding new people to guide you in life. In college, there are so many opportunities for new friends. Most colleges and universities have at least one activity a week, but usually even more often. There are also many clubs where students can expand their horizons, and just have fun! Being social also helps prepare students for life after school. 

Navigating relationships and boundaries is another crucial social skill. Learning and practicing saying “no” in an assertive way can be challenging, but is important to building healthy relationships (Rubin, 2019). 

College-aged kids have a unique opportunity to go out into the world and learn how to be on their own. It can seem overwhelming, but with proper preparation and skills, they can hit the water with a perfect score.


Child Mind Institute. (2020, May 8). College students: Tips for supporting learning at home. https://childmind.org/article/college-students-tips-for-supporting-learning-at-home/

Emerson, J. (2019, May 3). Tips for parents on teaching college-bound students how to be independent. University of South Florida. https://admissions.usf.edu/blog/tips-for-parents-on-teaching-college-bound-students-how-to-be-independent

Rubin, A. S. (2019, August 29). Top 10 life management skills young adults need for independence. New Directions for Young Adults. https://www.ndfya.com/2018/01/23/top-10-life-management-skills-young-adults-need-for-independence/