Empower Your College Grad: 3 Essential Health Talks

After years of study, your child is ready to graduate from college—congratulations! As you celebrate this milestone, use the opportunity to advise and guide your new graduate on their health.

While your child may have enjoyed some independence at college, they probably had many conveniences on campus to support healthy habits. When they were sick, the health center was a short walk away. The dining hall had an expansive salad bar and balanced meals overseen by a dietitian. They were close to a tremendous fitness facility and had plenty of free time to use it.

When they move to a new city or start a career, however, they will have to learn to make healthy choices on their own. To help you empower them, UNC Health family medicine physician Kathleen Barnhouse, MD, shares three conversations to have with your child.

1. Take Control of Your Healthcare

While in college, your child may have relied on student health services on campus and seen their pediatrician during school breaks. Now that they’ve graduated, they’ll be establishing care with a new provider and making their own appointments.

“Young adults have to take responsibility for their own healthcare, and parents have to let go so they can,” Dr. Barnhouse says. “It may be hard for parents, but it’s time for young adults to learn how to plan and schedule their own appointments.”

If your graduate is taking a job in a new city, they should start by finding a primary care provider. Dr. Barnhouse says to ask friends or family in the area for recommendations or use health insurance websites to find in-network providers. If your child saw a pediatric specialist for a chronic medical issue, that healthcare professional can help your child connect with an appropriate specialist for adults. In both cases, Dr. Barnhouse advises young adults to plan ahead, as there may be a wait for new patient visits.

Be sure your child understands their basic family medical history so they can share this information with their new doctor.

“Knowing if there is a history of heart disease, cancer and strokes is most important,” Dr. Barnhouse says. “You can start with understanding what has affected your mom, dad, brothers and sisters.”

If your child takes medications, they will need to share a list with their new provider, and if they’re moving to a new city, they’ll also need to locate a pharmacy to fill prescriptions.

As your child takes charge of their own health, also be sure that they have a current copy of their immunization record.

2. Build a Support System for Mental and Emotional Health

In college, your child probably had a supportive group of friends who lived with them in the dorms or took the same classes. Students can become used to finding natural opportunities to socialize and connect around campus, which helps in times of stress.

After graduation, your child’s network of friends may move in many directions, and it can be isolating to navigate a new city or a new job without built-in connections. Encourage your child to identify the people they can call for support.

“You need to have people to talk to when you’re not feeling right,” Dr. Barnhouse says. “When kids go out on their own, they may want to prove to the world that they can succeed with as little help as possible. Hopefully, they will realize that we all need support along the way.”

If your child is working their first job, they may not be aware of what they don’t know or how to get answers.

“It can be a big change for them to plan through how they’ll get to work on time,” Dr. Barnhouse says. “Also, if they’re supposed to be working 40 hours a week but find themselves regularly working 60 hours a week, do they have someone who can help them navigate that?”

Reach out to your child, Dr. Barnhouse recommends. When they were in college, you may have established rules about how often you’d contact them, but if you didn’t, take the time to do so now.

“You can acknowledge that your child wants to grow as an adult but establish that you’ll still be checking in with them regularly,” she says. “Some kids may find people other than their parents that they want to talk to about these issues, and that’s OK. Continue to advocate for them to have those people they can talk to.”

You should also remind your new graduate to investigate any mental health benefits that their insurance provides and to discuss issues with their primary care provider.

Anxiety and depression need to be managed like blood pressure and diabetes,” Dr. Barnhouse says. “You should expect questions about these issues, not because you’re being judged but because your doctor cares. It’s important to find a doctor you’re comfortable talking to about your mental health.”

3. Budget Time and Money for Healthy Habits

Your new grad may have learned some of the basics of scheduling and budgeting in college, but the transition to working a full-time job and managing their finances on their own may be new to them. Urge your child to be intentional about allocating time and resources for healthy habits as they begin their career.

“When you start a job, the schedule is an adjustment,” Dr. Barnhouse says. “Young adults need to think about how they’ll exercise on a regular basis.”

In college, your child may have gotten accustomed to using a fitness center or reserving a court with friends to play basketball or tennis. Their first salary may not allow for a gym membership, so encourage them to discover new forms of exercise they enjoy and identify where they can do it.

“Exercising and getting outside are both good for mental health, so combining the two is great,” Dr. Barnhouse says. “Young adults will have to figure out what fits in their budget. A pair of running shoes is less expensive than a gym membership.”

Similarly, young adults who relied on the dining hall may have to learn how to cook and create a grocery budget.

“Healthy food is more expensive,” Dr. Barnhouse says. “Young adults should be encouraged to include money in their budget for fruits and vegetables and for things they’ll need in their kitchen to cook.”

A college graduate’s first salary may seem like a lot of money to them, but you should remind them to budget for healthy essentials, particularly when social media shows their peers living extravagantly. Dr. Barnhouse says that money is often a source of stress for young adults in relationships, if one person wants to dine out more often or take more vacations.

“Open conversations about budgets are important,” Dr. Barnhouse says.

If you have questions about your child’s health after college graduation, talk to your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.