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Family Interactions Can Affect How Students Transition to College

April 15, 2013

West chester university psychologists Vanessa Johnson and Susan Gans
Psychologists Vanessa Johnson and Susan Gans teamed up to study the impact of young adults' home environment on their transition to campus life.

Adjusting to college can be a stressful experience, especially for first-year students. According to psychologists at West Chester University, part of how well young adults transition to campus life may depend on how the members of their families typically relate to one another.

"We all learn a lot from our family home environment, and we take that with us into the world," says biopsychologist Susan Gans. "How we respond to challenges, such as a transition from home to college, can very well depend on how we view our family's dynamics."

In an article in the Journal of College Student Development entitled "Managing the Transition to College: Family Functioning, Emotion Coping, and Adjustment in Emerging Adulthood," Gans and Vanessa Johnson, both professors of psychology at West Chester, examined whether the relationship between first-year university students' perception of their family's functioning and the young adults' adjustment to college differed depending on the student's tendency to avoid difficult emotions.

Contrary to most family research, the two psychologists assessed the whole-family environment versus just the relationship between parent and child or spouse. "We were interested in how young adults' experiences with their families as a whole can influence who they are as individuals as they go through difficult times," says Johnson.

Data was gathered during a spring semester from 320 first-year university undergraduates who responded to a series of questionnaires about their family environment, their emotional skills and adjustment to college.

One of the psychologists' key findings was the connection between students' ability to manage their emotions effectively and how well they adjusted to college.

"New college students who were able to manage their emotions reported having little difficulty managing the academic, social and personal adjustment to college," says Johnson. "This was true even when they claimed their family had high levels of conflict."

The two researchers also found that the first-year students from non-expressive families who report avoiding difficult emotions had more difficulty adjusting to the social demands of college life than their peers from more expressive families who were adept at managing their emotions. Being able to manage their emotions appears to protect new college students from the potential risk of having a non-expressive family environment.

As they continue to look into family and individual factors that predict college adjustment, Gans and Johnson have incorporated measures of stress physiology obtained while family members work together on a challenging activity. They are among the first in their field to take a complex view of family that includes psychological and physiological measures from multiple family members. They call this approach whole family biopsychology.

Gans and Johnson believe that both the psychological and physiological aspects of this project and the additional focus on complex family relationships will provide some clues as to the family dynamics and skills young adults need to successfully transition to college.

A member of the University's psychology faculty since 2000, Vanessa Johnson is the author of From Early Childhood to Adolescence: Linking Family Functioning and School Behavior. Susan Gans, who joined the psychology department in 1997, investigates the role that parents play in the establishment of stress response.