During August and September, many parents are seeing our kids off to college for the first time. You’re focusing on outfitting their dorm room, helping them pack, and making travel plans, but don’t forget to pause for one more very important task: anticipating and preparing for the emotional, social and academic challenges ahead.
Even students with high grades, great scores and loads of extracurricular accomplishments may have trouble with the transition to college and they need your help to prepare. In the 2018 survey of 155,000 students on almost 200 campuses, the American College Health Association found that more than 85 percent of college students described “feeling overwhelmed” and half felt “things were hopeless.” And the figures are most likely highest among freshmen.
What are the biggest challenges?
1. Fear of not being socially accepted or making new friends
This is a major one. Being in a whole new social environment, many freshmen feel isolated, telling their parents, “I feel so lonely” or, “I hate my roommate and he hates me.” There is also the fear of rejection in fraternity or sorority recruitment activities. And when social life fails, so often does academic effort.
2. Fear of not making it academically.
This can present an even greater challenge for students who excelled academically in high school but now find themselves in classes where all the students were academic stars in their high schools. I remember a freshman seminar on French revolutionary novels where I discovered that many of my peers came from prep schools and had already read the books—in French! I felt totally inadequate and remember calling my dad, saying, “I don’t belong here! I’m sure they thought they were accepting somebody else with my name.” He assured me that the admissions office hadn’t made a mistake and that I would do just fine, but I still had some real doubts my first few weeks.
3. Unrealistic expectations of themselves.
Again, the academic stars of high school may assume they will always be at or near the top of the class. When expectations aren’t met, feelings of great disappointment, failure and self-blame can follow. The extreme is perfectionism, where a student can never measure up to his own standards. And parental pressure for success exacerbates problems.
How to help
The greatest danger from these challenges is that your student will keep feelings bottled up and not share them with anyone, particularly with a healthcare professional. The best preparation is to talk with your student about the challenges ahead and help them to plan how they will deal with them. If they are struggling, the first step is to acknowledge the difficulties and recognize that they may need help, whether from parents, dorm counselors, or campus health center professionals.
But how can you know if your child is struggling and know when and how to offer encouragement or suggestions? College privacy rules make it difficult to find out how a student is doing, and dorm advisors and teachers are generally not allowed to call parents with concerns. Once they are eighteen, federal privacy laws prevent parents being contacted by or getting information from medical and mental health providers. However, students can grant permission for campus academic advisors and healthcare providers to communicate directly with parents so consider discussing this with your student.
Colleges, faced with an epidemic of anxious or depressed students, are beginning to step up to the plate with increased counseling opportunities, mentoring, peer support groups and programs to teach healthy living. They are also trying to reduce the stigma of mental illness and making it a little easier for students to admit that they need help.
The most important thing is to talk to your college student. Amid all the luggage and boxes, take time to sit down and help him or her anticipate and prepare for the social, emotional and academic challenges ahead. If your child has already left for college, introduce the subjects at the first opportunity. Provide ongoing open communication channels and emotional support. Don’t assume that they’re doing just fine—ask, but don’t probe. Remind them that even small failures are learning opportunities and can presage success. Set up regular phone or video calls. Student mailboxes are generally empty most of the time, so the occasional letter of encouragement—with or without a care package—can be the bright spot of your student’s day (enlist grandparents in this). With your love and encouragement, they can surmount all the challenges and make their college years happy and successful.
A graduate of Stanford University, Mary Waldmann and her husband Raymond raised three children who are now independent, well-adjusted and happy young adults. Before becoming a mother, she was a successful real estate broker, political consultant and public relations executive, and worked as a part-time communications consultant when her children were young. Mary is the author of Six-Word Lessons on Winning with Today's Media , Six-Word Lessons for Intentional Parenting, and Six-Word Lessons for Compelling Speeches.
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