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What to Expect When You're Adjusting

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The good, the bad, the ugly... adjusting to new college life is all of these things. Emotions may come in waves, in tsunamis or not at all. And all of those are ok! Knowing what you might feel can help those reactions seem more manageable.

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This graph illustrates the highs and lows of adjustment. Not only at university but when you start a new job, get married, plan a big vacation! Any time your "normal" is going to change, you'll likely ride this roller coaster. So why are the highs and low so overwhelming when you're away from home for the first time?


Even if you don't feel it in the traditional way, you are likely going to be exhausted. Sleeping in a new bed, new building - around new sounds and smells - working with roommate sleep schedules throws off your sleep patterns for weeks. Experts say it takes about 21 days to adjust to sleeping in a new space.


Your body is likely also going through transitions. Even if you are a fit physical sports goddess, your body is working in different ways now. Many campuses involve walking at least a few blocks to get to food or class, staircases, even just the trip down the hall to shower is slightly different than you were used to at home. You're also eating different foods at completely different times. Allergies can come into play too.


Remembering to toss your moisturizer into the shower caddy before heading down the hall. Calculating how much time it'll take to walk to the bus stop and ride to class. Looking up which bus you're supposed to take in the first place. Finding the fastest way to class. Remembering the name of the guy down the hall that wanted to have lunch this week. Where'd you put your keycard? Do you need to take materials to class? What time does the dining hall close? Even regular mundane things take mental space.


For many kids, their old normal involved a lot of routine. You had everything you needed at home in a familiar place. Your highschool was your old stomping grounds with familiar faces, locations and you inherently knew exactly what was expected of you and when. Graduation was a party party party! And you were a successful center of attention. Summer likely included college visits, orientation, dorm shopping and logistics planning. Last dinners with friends, a hug to the family pet. All of that is about as high of a normal as you can get.


It might be night 1. Week 1. Month 2. But the dip is coming. Physical, mental and emotional exhaustion will gang up on even the smallest hint of social anxiety.

What have I gotten myself into?

Everyone is making friends faster than me.

These first weeks are the ONLY time I can make new friends.

I can't live with these allergies.

My roommate is a psychopath.

I shouldn't be here.

I can't do this.

I'm not like everyone else here.

Everyone else is grouped up and I'm not.

My old friends have rushed and I'm alone

I committed to rushing and I hate it.

I can't find anything here.

There is no way I can make it between classes in time and I'll fail.


If you (or your student) are in the middle of that first downward dip, make a commitment to ride it out for 21 days. You can do anything if you have a light at the end of the tunnel. Make that light day 22. If you absolutely hate it on day 22 then you and your family can re-evaluate but give yourself the time to ride that dip all the way down and back up again. Let your body adjust to the new sleep and eating patterns. You will likely start to recognize a few familiar faces even if you don't have your own tribe yet. You'll start to automatically know where things are and use less mental energy just getting around during the day. You'll likely have at least 1 academic success - turning in an assignment, completing a reading. You can do anything for 21 minutes. Take a few deep breaths and talk to a friend or family member on the phone, listen to music, whatever it takes for you to reside in this new space for the next 21 minutes. Then think about ok, 21 hours. It's not even a whole day. You can do this - succeed at one thing, smile at one person in the next 21 hours. Do that over and over again until you've reached 21 days and then re-evaluate where you are, what you are feeling.


So, my son is a people person. Not the center of the party, but gets to know everyone quickly and liked by all. It never occurred to me he'd have trouble adjusting. I worried he'd sleep through morning classes or stay up too late at night but never gave much thought to him feeling out of place physically or socially. Ever.

We dropped him off at the arc of his excitement high. He teared up a little when I hugged him goodbye. The next day we spoke and he and his roommate had been out playing basketball. I thought "wow, he's totally got this!".

We made plans to come to lunch in 2 weeks and talked a little here and there through that time. When we arrived for lunch I could see, though, that his face looked exhausted. Eyes were tired. He was a little stressed about schoolwork already and possibly going to be breaking up with his long distance girlfriend because finding time to recap the day every day on the phone was stressful. His old HS friends were all rushing fraternities and it wasn't his kind of thing. He didn't regret it, but now suddenly they all had a ton of time commitments with rush and he knew nobody. He had no social requirements. He felt alone and lame and really behind the game of finding his new tribe. He wasn't ok. And watching that was hard. We'd gone to Longhorn and he barely picked at his steak. Still trying to be personable and asking us about our lives but he wasn't ok.

I sent him youtube videos other students had made about feeling alone or that it takes time to make new friends. I sent him all of the "join a club!" suggestions which fell flat. But I encouraged him a little every day. He and his brother played remote video games one night to get his mind off things. He found one new guy in a class who invited him to watch lame movies with his own hs friends.

It was slow, yall. My son focused on schoolwork and hid from trying to make friends for a few weeks. But one foot in front of the other he became less exhausted and a little more his quirky fun self and people started gravitating to him. It took until about October for him to be fully 100% again. It wasn't fun. But it was necessary.

And now, sophomore year he's somewhat doing it again in an apartment. And he'll do it again next year, and when he gets a job. And if he moves to another city. And it will be an up and down rollercoaster each time - but one he will know that he can 100% ride out until he reaches his new normal.


Ugh yall. It's rough. Let them know that you hear them. That even though everyone feels this way that it's important to express their feelings and to ride them. Some kids have higher and lower arcs than others. Some kids don't even start to dip down until further into the fall. Some kids barely feel a blip. But when you get the nighttime call in tears be strong. Remind them of hard things they've done before. Remind them that they aren't themselves yet. Remind them that tons of kids are on the phone with their parents at that very moment. Talk them through that first 21 minutes. Tell them you'll talk again in 21 hours and do that every single day if you need to until they have enough information about the situation and themselves to make any big decisions. You've got this!



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