Bad day or big problem- how do you know if what your student is experiencing is the "normal" stress of a college student or perhaps signs that a more serious problem is developing? One of the most confusing parts of being the parent of a college student is trying to figure out how to "parent" from a distance. When our child lived at home we were able to get the broad picture of how their life was going- a conversation with a teary daughter, upset because of a conflict with her boyfriend, is set in the context of seeing that same daughter laughing the next day as she enjoys an outing with some friends. But when our kids go off to college we often get only snippets of how their life is going- a stressed out phone call late at night or an email detailing how upset they are about their roommate. Not knowing the big picture can make it difficult to know how to respond. Is it time to step in and "take control" or instead should you step back and give them space to try to sort out some of this on their on?
In most cases when a student tells you about a problem situation, they are sharing life events, not asking for you to fix it. Attempting to resolve the problem yourself is not only typically unwelcome, but also unhelpful. Learning to assume responsibility and problem solve is the road to adulthood. So, how should you respond?
Listen and express understanding first. “I can see how that would be frustrating,” may be all that the student is seeking. If they seem unsure of how to proceed, suggest asking advice from a knowledgeable authority, an RA, an upperclassman, an advisor, etc. Often students feel stuck because they shared their concern only with another student, who is a good friend, but unfortunately no more knowledgeable than they themselves.
But what if it is not just one concern? Expect at least one phone call where everything with college is wrong. Concerns about fitting in, making friends, getting good grades and adjusting to new expectations in an environment where you don’t know the rules yet, can be overwhelming. These anxieties can temporarily spillover into all areas of life, making everything seem bleak.
If your student's unhappiness lasts a few weeks or more, ask gentle questions to help discover if this is a situation which will resolve in time. Try to assess the major areas of their life for warning signs of more significant struggles:
- Academically: patterns of poor attendance, missed assignments, poor grades, low motivation
- Physically: noticeable weight change, lethargy, neglected grooming, changes in sleep patterns
- Life stressors: significant disappointment and/or rejection such as non-acceptance into an academic program or relationship break-up, death of a loved one
- Emotionally: changes in personality, persistent crying, angry outbursts, social isolation, apparent overreaction to irritations, risky behavior, despondency, agitation and feelings of hopelessness need prompt attention.
If your student continues to struggle, encourage them to seek out counseling at the Engle Center. There is a great deal of information on our website explaining how to schedule an appointment with a counselor, answers to common questions students often have about the counseling process, etc. But what if your child does not think they need to speak with one of our counselors but you are still worried about them? If you are concerned about your child and unsure if what they are going through is normal stress or something to be concerned about, feel free to call the Engle Center and ask to speak with the Director. We can help you sort through your concerns and direct your student, and you, to the appropriate resources. If your student does decide to come in for counseling please be aware that the counselor cannot release information about your child without his or her written written permission, however the counselor is available to listen to your concerns and help you decide how best to support him/her.
Sometimes a student's problems can become so difficult that you may be concerned about their ability to remain in college. For a further discussion of this, read our article, My Child is Struggling. Should I Let Her Come Home?