Sending a child off to college is always an emotional time. This may be your first time at the whole college thing, or you may be an old pro. Either way, getting your child’s physical and psychological health ready for school is crucial for her overall success. We sourced some top docs to get reliable and helpful information on how to prepare kids — health-wise — for this foray into independence. Here’s what they had to say.
Pediatrician Elizabeth Triggs, M.D., of Green Hills Pediatric Associates in Nashville, Tennessee, advocates that your child get all of the vaccines recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (click here for the vaccine schedule) before heading to college. The top three that always are advised for the college-aged kid are the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, meningococcal meningitis and Tetanus-Diptheria-Pertussis (Tdap). While not required by colleges, the HPV vaccine is strongly recommended for both sexes by pediatricians. “Human papillomavirus (HPV) is spread though exchange of bodily secretions, so it can be spread simply through kissing, as well as by sexual contact,” shares Dr. Triggs. “Many cases of cancer of the mouth, tongue, throat and esophagus have been traced to this virus. Additionally, according to the National Meningitis Association, crowded living conditions, such as college dorms, are ripe for the spread of meningococcal disease, so vaccination is a wise preventive move. Talk to your child’s pediatrician to ensure your child is up to date with all of her vaccinations.
Teach proper nutrition before temptation arises.
They’re called “the freshman 15” for a reason. It’s not unusual for kids who are free from their parents’ nutritional watch to go crazy with the veritable buffet that is available to them at college. Whether it’s the all-you-can-eat cafeteria or the campus convenience store right downstairs from their dorm room, there are plenty of unhealthy options up for grabs. However, “With a little awareness and pre-planning, consuming a healthful diet that has variety and balance should not be a problem,” says dietitian Reba Sloan, who recommends a diet full of fruits, veggies, high-fiber grains and lean protein sources. “Having a dorm fridge and microwave can be a great asset, too,” she advises, as teens can store fresh fruits and veggies or nuke a quick, more healthy meal than what may be available in the caf. Talking openly with your teen about nutrition prior to college drop-off — as well as modeling healthy eating through your own diet — will go a long way in helping her to make healthy decisions during freshman year and beyond.
Remind them of the importance of sleep.
Telling kids they need sleep can get exhausting. However, if ever there was a time to hammer the point home, it’s before they head to college. College students should get, according to Dr. Triggs, “a minimum of seven hours of sleep per night.” Lack of sleep can weaken the immune system, leaving your co-ed more susceptible to common respiratory viruses. Plus, “When students get enough sleep, their minds are sharper, they retain information, they perform better academically, and students are not as prone to depression,” she adds. To prepare your child to get proper rest in college, let them be fully in charge of their bedtime prior to leaving home. They will learn on their own how late nights can impact early mornings and, hopefully, they will discover how much sleep their body requires to function at its best.
Let them take responsibility for their health care.
When your teen heads to college, you’ll no longer be the one to book their doctor appointments or renew their prescriptions. To prepare your child for this responsibility, psychologist Joshua Klapow recommends that you sit down with her prior to dropping her at school, research the school’s student health center hours and services, and find out the breadth their services; for instance, whether they have mental health care physicians on staff. Dr. Triggs builds on to this, advising parents to help their child establish doctors in their new town and prepare a round of prescriptions for them to start the school year. “If you have a child on chronic medicine, sit down and tell her how to take the medicine, how to check with providers at school and how to get refills,” she explains. “Show her how to access student health and doctors’ information, as well.”
Discuss their mental health and prepare them for potentially new emotions.
Mental health is often overlooked when getting your child prepared for college; yet for many kids, it’s the biggest step toward adulthood they’ve taken, which means an array of emotions are bound to arise. Prepare your child for what may be to come by opening the door for communication. “Normalize homesickness. Let your child know they are making lots of changes and when this happens all at once, it is stressful,” Josh Klapow explains. “Be gentle in suggesting that they not isolate themselves and to not keep it all in.”
Depression and anxiety are also very common for students in college. However Josh encourages parents not to plant the seed on these topics — but rather plant the seed of transition in your student. “Encourage your student to talk to someone,” he shares. “Establish a routine and ride out the storm — and be a lifeline of privacy!”
BONUS: For the parents!
We know this is a time of transition for you and your peace of mind matters too. “As you are talking with your son or daughter, remind yourself, constantly, that what you see as their fears or insecurities may very likely be your fears or insecurities,” Josh shares. “Understand that a lot of what we do as parents is projected onto our children, so the more you can be composed, the more the child understands that they have a rock and stability.”
Get your child off to a prepared and healthy start to the school year and enjoy the successes that follow! Make it a great year!
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