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How To Prepare Your High School Grad For The Emotional Strain Of College

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Content college student in yellow

If you have a child who is in college or nearing college age, you probably have heard about the mental health crisis among college students. The news is filled with stories of college athletes, seemingly the picture of health and success, dying by suicide. 

With all the articles and news on social media about the mental health of college students, it's natural to be worried. But it's even better to be prepared, and to prepare your child. 

I have worked with college students for 45 years and have a few thoughts about how you can support your young adult and guide them to self-sufficiency without worrying about the fear-mongering that’s going on in the media.

Growing up is hard. It’s always been hard and it’s probably much harder right now because of the changes our children have had to adapt to, including remote learning, limited ways for young people to make new friends, and the easy availability of mood-altering and potentially addictive drugs.

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How do you help your child handle their mental health when they're going to college?

A lot of mental health practitioners call these developments "mental illness", but not every struggle our college-aged kids face is mental illness.

 Of course, there are some students who are experiencing serious mental health issuesI disagree that it can all be classified under that one umbrella, though.

Research has repeatedly shown that the biggest single indicator of college student well-being and success is the existence of a relationship with one caring adult at the college.

Typically, that one adult is a professor, but professors are not necessarily the only adults who can listen to students.

There are always people in residence halls, in student activities programs, club advisors, academic advisors, and career counselors who can provide the listening ear that your student needs to figure out whatever problems they are facing.

As a parent, you want to be as helpful as you can but you're not involved in your student’s college life in the same way as the people who work on campus or in the online universe that is often part of the college experience. This is true of students there for strictly academic purposes, as well as student-athletes. 

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Suicides among elite student-athletes have horrified everyone recently

Many adults may not realize that the most important question college students face is "Who am I and who do I want to become? What is my identity?"

If a student doesn’t have an emerging sense of self, they cannot make good decisions in any aspect of their lives. They have no framework by which to evaluate the choices they face.

Student-athletes have almost always created identities that are completely anchored in their sport. Worries about not maintaining their "elite" status torture young people who don’t have a strong and resilient sense of identity beyond their sport.

Colleges are providing increased levels of service for these athletes, including therapy/discussion groups, skill training in anxiety management and relaxation, and nutrition education.

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Even older and more mature athletes have trouble letting go when it's time to retire from their chosen sports.

The challenge for all parents and mentors who love these students is to help them incorporate their status as athletes into a much broader sense of who they are and to step back when they feel like they're getting out of balance.

Maya Moore, one of the most outstanding basketball players from the prominent program at the University of Connecticut, famously left basketball after her senior year to work with people in prison who had been unjustly convicted of murder.

She based her decision on deep faith and a sincere belief in justice. Her identity went far beyond basketball. Elite student-athletes need to think deeply about what matters in their lives beyond their sport if they are to remain mentally healthy.

In contrast, I believe that the majority of the problems most students face are the "normal" difficulties of identity formation and emerging adulthood.

Normal has become extremely difficult, but there's no indication that normal is going to get any easier for any of us in the immediate future. 

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Many careers will not be stable as far as we can tell. The work environment is changing at the speed of technology.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" is no longer a reasonable question.

These questions might serve us better now:  

  • "Who do you want to be and what do you have to offer the world?"
  • "What do you love to do?"
  • "What kinds of things excite you?" 

After we figure out what we love to do and what we’re good at, we can then ask, "What kinds of work would let me do that and get paid for it?"

The other developmental issues students face will also become less daunting if they can find somebody to listen to them, either individually or in a group.

We need to normalize the typical worries of young people so that they can realize they are not the only ones worrying about relationships, sexuality, faith, family, finances, and the future in general.

These conversations are not pathological and generally don't require therapists.

They require people who have more experience in life to learn to listen to the insecurities of young people and help them think through these issues to the point where they become manageable.

Whatever the future brings, we all need a sense of our own priorities and values, the ability to think critically about our options, and the courage to make mistakes.

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Successful adults have learned to negotiate these processes and are very able to share their insights without imposing their conclusions.

This is not pathology or illness. These are challenges that can be navigated through mentorship, kindness, compassion and support.

If you see your child struggling at college try the following: 

Listen carefully until you understand the problem from their point of view.

Remember teenagers often think they will die from problems that look very manageable to their parents. Try not to minimize their feelings. 

  • Ask questions for the purpose of deepening your understanding
  • Ask them if they know any adults on campus that they trust.
  • Suggest that they seek out one person to talk to.
  • Encourage them to find somebody who won’t join in the catastrophizing, but will slow down the conversation and look more deeply into the issues.

As a side issue, I'm a big fan of small colleges (around 4,000 students or less) for students who may need more attention or community. They are far more likely to have accessible faculty and staff who have time to care about students.

Most people who work on college campuses with students are there because they care about students’ happiness and success.

Support can be found in unexpected places. One of my mentors in college was the cleaning lady in my dorm.

It’s time for you to prepare for the handoff.

If you want your child to become a successful, self-reliant adult, help them expand their "village" of kind listeners, mentors and cheerleaders. These guides are everywhere, but it may take some searching to find the right one for your child.

Your job right now is to listen, encourage and support. 

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Jane Fried is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Life Coach, and a person who listens with empathy and without judgment. For more information on her services, visit the Learning With Mind And Heart.com website.

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