College Shock: Why NOT to Underestimate the Impact of “Going Off to School” on Your Child’s Psychological Health
You always knew this day would come. You also expected a certain amount of anxiety…you just thought it would be yours, not your soon-to-be college student’s! After all, going off to college is supposed to be one of the most longed-for milestones in a young person’s life. It’s a time for teens to discover their independence, pursue their interests, and have a good time—they’re not supposed to be overwhelmed by the changes they’re experiencing. Their mental—and even physical—health is not supposed to suffer. And yet, that’s exactly what happens when many young people trade their bedrooms for a dorm room.
While some anxiety is normal during the college transition, it can escalate to unhealthy levels—and it’s very important for parents to be able to recognize the difference.
Even if your child has managed his schoolwork, responsibilities, and stress very well up until now, the fact is that moving away and being on his own for the first time can be a game changer. Students may not be willing to admit that they’re struggling—or even be aware that their anxiety isn’t normal—so we as parents need to know what to look for and how to help.
My own college years were characterized by debilitating perfectionism, anxiety, and depression, even necessitating a semester-long leave of absence from school. Although I was able to keep my grades up, my social life suffered. I relied heavily on the emotional support of my parents, driving the 45 minutes to their home on a near-nightly basis. When my schedule forced me to stay at school, I found myself turning to alcohol and smoking to alleviate his stress, which I felt unable to manage on my own.
I cannot possibly explain to you how often and how desperately I wanted to quit college during my darkest times throughout those four and a half years. In fact, of all the things I have done in my life, I’m still the proudest of earning my college degree despite the many challenges I faced. And, believe it or not, this accomplishment helps me even today to push boldly forward when I am faced with obstacles that seem insurmountable.
Many of today’s college students simply can’t shake the overwhelming negative feeling that is created after they suddenly find themselves on their own. To make sure that your child isn’t one of them, read on to learn what signs to look for and how to alleviate college-transition stress:
What parents need to know about college anxiety:
First, know the statistics. It’s very, very important that parents not dismiss anxiety in college students. Assumptions like “Not my child” or “I’m sure this doesn’t happen often” can be very dangerous to make. The fact is, the amount of mental health issues among college students has risen steadily in the decades since my own struggles. Consider the following statistics:
• Over 65 percent of college students have experienced periods of homesickness.
• Forty-four percent of American college students say that they’re feeling symptoms of depression.
• More than half of all college students suffer from at least one mental health problem during their freshman years.
• As many as 11 percent of college freshmen have actually had suicidal thoughts.
• Eighty-five percent of students with depression or suicidal thoughts do not get treatment.
If you think about it, these statistics aren’t surprising. Our education culture is increasingly achievement-obsessed and ultra-competitive, and kids are feeling the strain well before they even graduate from high school. Even if they don’t let on, most teens will feel some pressure to perform. Plus, new college students are suddenly finding themselves in an unfamiliar environment, far from their support systems, and living with strangers. Especially if—like me—a student is a perfectionist who thrives on order, it would be difficult to design a more stressful environment.
Determine whether your child is likely to feel harmful anxiety. While no college-bound teenager is immune from feeling anxiety, certain personality types may be more susceptible to negative feelings than others. If your child has a history of separation anxiety, perfectionism, or social difficulties, for example, it’s reasonable to take into account that these issues might crop up again in a college setting.
Furthermore, if a student has grown up with very active parents, the vacuum created by being away from this support system could be a shock to her system. Now, please realize that I’m not trying to make parents worry needlessly. It’s completely possible that a young person who had trouble coping with stress in high school might come into her own and flourish in college. I’m just saying that especially if your child has struggled in the past or is very attached to her current environment, be extra vigilant as she sets off by herself.
In fact, I’d like to especially speak to parents of children who have suffered from any sort of significant separation anxiety. You know your child better than anyone, and if you are concerned about your child’s ability to function away from you, suggest that she attend a school that’s located within an hour or so of your home. That way, if she does need to come home for support during the weekends—or even every night during the week—she can. Transferring to a more distant school later on is always an option. I’ll be honest: I think that attending a university only 45 minutes away from my parents’ house might have saved my life. I’m not sure how well I would—or wouldn’t—have coped with my anxiety had they not been so close and so continually supportive.
Realize that some amount of college anxiety is normal. Picture this: it’s move-in day, your family is driving onto campus, and the trunk is laden with suitcases and dorm room furnishings. But instead of being so excited that he barely notices you saying goodbye after the car is unloaded (à la Hollywood scenes), your son is displaying some major jitters. You can tell he’s keyed up and nervous, and (unbelievably) he’s in no hurry for you to leave. Over the next week or so, he calls you more often than you expected, and you suspect he hasn’t completely settled in. Yes, it’s natural to be concerned, but relax—there’s no need to panic yet. Some amount of transition anxiety is normal.
No matter what the circumstances are, college is a big change for your child. Even if he’ll be living at home instead of on campus, he’ll still be leaving the familiar faces and surroundings of high school and plunging into something completely new. When you think about it that way, it’s understandable if your student has a few butterflies leading up to move-in day or the first day of classes, no matter how mature or independent he is.
But understand this can be a real problem (and that’s okay too). Yes, a little transitional nervousness is normal. Problems start when these jitters escalate into severe anxiety and depression. As much as you can, watch for warning signs including academic problems, mood swings, withdrawal, feelings of hopelessness, disregard for personal appearance, increased substance use, increased risk-taking, and/or an obsession with death. Also, take into account that your teen may be very excited to start college initially but become anxious as the semester progresses. Check in often, and if you suspect that your child may be suffering from depression or anxiety, talk with her openly about it.
Whether your child has a few butterflies or a severe case of anxiety or depression, it is very important for her to know that she is not a “freak”. When I was struggling in college, I thought that I was the only one, and that I was abnormal. I’ve since discovered that, like me, many students with homesickness, anxiety, or depression suffer in silence because they are afraid people will think they are “crazy” or weak if they decide to seek help. As a parent, you’re in a position to explain to your child that many, many people are dealing with depression and anxiety. Then remind her that she does not have to live with these troubling and debilitating feelings—counseling and medication can help her take control of her life again. Be very involved each step of the way if your child does decide to reach out.
How parents can help:
Ease as much anxiety as possible. Believe it or not, there’s a lot you can do to head off college anxiety before move-in day ever rolls around. As I have already pointed out, many students experience problems because they’ve found themselves in an environment that’s unfamiliar and unpredictable. You can help take the edge off by discussing with your child beforehand what his first semester will probably look like and by making a few plans together.
Specify when you will see each other next. Being able to look forward to a planned visit or two can make the (possibly scary) future seem much less intimidating and give everyone something to look forward to. For instance, you can come to your child’s campus for the homecoming football game, and he’ll come home for fall break. Also, take advantage of technology like Skype and set (and keep) a weekly date. You can even help your child locate essential places like the pharmacy, bank, and a church when it is time to move in.
Get in some quality time. If you’re not careful, that last bit of time you have left before your child moves away will be completely filled up by things that absolutely, positively have to get done. After all, dorm furnishings, school supplies, and new clothes need to be purchased. There’s paperwork that needs to be filled out for your student’s soon-to-be college. You might even need to open up a checking account for your child or go shopping for his first car. Just don’t get so caught up in trips to Target and Office Depot that you forget to enjoy your last few days together.
In the midst of all the college move-in preparations, it’s easy for parents and students to get themselves worked up into a frenzy, which, let’s face it, will probably only exacerbate any anxiety that might crop up. It’s very important to spend some time together as a family that’s not about being busy with college preparations. If you can, go on a fun day trip together…or at least have a few good family dinners. Among other things, you can use this time to talk about how you can stay connected and about how each person feels about the upcoming goodbye. (If you can help it, you don’t want to be an emotional wreck in front of your child’s new roommate and his parents!)
Follow your child’s lead. Be warned: this tip is often one of the most difficult for parents to follow. After all (to some extent), you’ve been the final authority on all things related to your child for the past eighteen years. Understandably, it’s going to be difficult to step back and allow your child to dictate the tone of your relationship…but this strategy is probably for the best. From phone calls to emotions, take the lead from your child.
Remind yourself that college is the time when your child is supposed to begin coming into her own. So if she’s ecstatic to be leaving home, do your best to swallow your melancholy and be happy with her. On the other hand, if she seems a bit wary of being out by herself, don’t be overly excited about your impending empty-nester freedom or chime in with your own worries. Instead, help her to talk through her anxiety. And lastly, allow her to guide college-to-home communication. I’m a parent myself, so I know that letting your child take the lead in this area can be especially difficult. The fact is, though, that the phone is not supposed to be an umbilical cord, and it’s okay to be a bit disconnected from her if that’s what she wants. If your child prefers email, for example, get on the digital train.
Don’t downplay your child’s worries. Be honest: when your child was young and upset about something, downplaying the severity of the situation was sometimes the best course of action. What parent hasn’t said something along the lines of, “Oh, that scrape isn’t bad at all. We’ll put a band-aid and some ointment on it, and it’ll be better in no time!” Now that your child is in college, though, the “it’s nothing to worry about” strategy might not be best. If she says she’s having trouble adjusting, it’s best to take her assertion seriously.
If your child calls home and says that she is worried or depressed, talk to her about what could be causing her feelings. Even if you honestly think she might be overreacting, don’t assume that things will work themselves out in a few months. Ask if she’s under a lot of academic pressure. Does she have problems with her roommate? Is she homesick? Remember that adjusting to college is different for everyone: some may take days; some may take months. If your student does not seem to be adjusting at all and has been homesick for weeks, it might be good to suggest that she look for resources through the counseling and wellness department at her school.
All parents need to be aware that depression, anxiety, and—most unfortunately—even suicides are growing problems at colleges and universities across America. The good news is, educating yourself about what these issues look like and how you can deal with (and possibly alleviate) them can make a huge difference in the kind of college experience your child has. Above all, please remember that difficulties adapting do not mean that your child is weak or that you have somehow failed as a parent. I don’t want any young people today to feel alone or to experience difficulties like the ones I did if they don’t need to.
Todd Patkin, author of “Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In,” grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter. “Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In” (StepWise Press, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-9658261-9-8, $19.95, www.findinghappinessthebook.com) is available at bookstores nationwide, from major online booksellers, and at www.findinghappinessthebook.com.