Treating the Dorm Room Blues

Time really does fly. It seems like back-to-school just happened, but somehow, we’re already staring fall break in the face! Realizing how far we are into the school year has caused me to think about a topic that’s really close to my heart: the often-difficult time young people can have adjusting to college. If you’re a longtime follower of my blog, you may remember the posts I wrote last September regarding depression and anxiety on college campuses. This year, I’d like to share my thoughts on homesickness.

I think that many parents probably feel a huge sense of relief when their child gets into college. Years and years of hard work (your child’s and your own) have finally paid off. She’ll be having the time of her life, you think to yourself multiple times a day. Or, I just know he’ll fit in and do well—he was made for that school. Then you get the call: “Mom, Dad, I miss you. I’m homesick. I don’t think I like it here as much as I thought I would.” Now you’re shocked, bewildered, and maybe even a little disappointed. College (not to mention paying for it) has been the ultimate goal for years—what’s going wrong?

Actually, homesickness is more common than you might think. According to the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, 65 percent of all college freshmen suffer from homesickness and the condition often continues into subsequent academic years. And now that the initial adjustment period of moving in, attending new classes, and making friends has ended, homesickness is starting to hit many students full force. At this point in the semester, many young people are reaching the I’ve-never-been-away-from-home-this-long milestone, and they’re missing their old surroundings, routines, and support systems.

I’ve been there. As you may already know, I struggled with homesickness and separation anxiety throughout my childhood and into college. In fact, as a college freshman, I didn’t hesitate to drive 45 minutes to my home on a near-nightly basis. To this day, sticking it out and graduating from college in spite of the difficulties I had in adapting remains one of my proudest accomplishments. And while I don’t want to needlessly alarm parents, I also know from experience that if not addressed, homesickness can lead to more serious issues such as anxiety and depression.

If your child calls home expressing feelings of homesickness, it’s important to know how to address the situation. Here are some of my tips:

*Don’t downplay your child’s worries. “Don’t worry,” you might instinctively want to say. “You’ll get used to your dorm and your classes, and I know you’ll make friends quickly.” Squelch that impulse. If your child calls home and says that she is worried or misses aspects of her “old” life, always talk to her about what could be causing her feelings. Is she under a lot of academic pressure? Does she like her classes? Does she have problems with her roommate? 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.

*But don’t rush to school to pick up your child, either. If your child seems to be experiencing a normal level of homesickness (i.e., not depressed or experiencing dangerous levels of anxiety), then it won’t help him if you rush to his rescue. You can help in small doses from home, of course—just don’t drop all of your weekend plans to make a last-minute collegiate road trip or immediately start researching local colleges for a transfer. Learning to rely more fully on oneself without a parent in the next room is something that we all have to do sooner or later. And if your child goes through these growing pains now, he’ll be setting himself up for more success in the future.

*You can help take the edge off by making a few plans together. In an unfamiliar new environment, it can be difficult for your student to accurately picture what next semester, next month, or even next week might look like—and that uncertainty might be feeding her feelings of homesickness. In this instance, simply making plans to see you or to visit home in the near future might be just the remedy the doctor ordered, as long as the discussion is confident and encouraging. Also, take advantage of technology like Skype and set (and keep) a weekly date. However, do not make a pick-up bargain (if you start to feel homesick or if it doesn’t go away, we will come get you). Kids can end up using this as a crutch—after all, what incentive do they have to proactively build a fulfilling college life for themselves if they know Mom and Dad are on the way?

*Help them to re-create the security they feel at home at school. Part of the insecurity that new students feel when they are living on their own for the first time stems from the loss of the routine and comforts they were used to at home. For example, figuring out simple tasks like laundry and grocery shopping can be daunting when you’ve always had your parents’ help. If you suspect that this issue is impacting your child’s happiness at college, send a pre-emptive email or care package full of advice and guidance. For example, you might include a sample schedule for laundry and instructions on how to wash darks vs. whites. Or if your child cooks for himself, talk about what grocery staples he should have on hand and perhaps send him recipes for a few of his favorite homecooked dishes (with shopping list included!).

*Realize that you and your child aren’t locked in. Yes, you have paid a deposit, moved your child into her dorm, and maybe even started to tackle those daunting tuition payments. While this does signify a big commitment, it’s important to realize that your child is not locked into remaining at her current college. And if her homesickness doesn’t abate despite your best efforts, she shouldn’t stay there long-term. Some students, like me, may not be able to find a healthy balance far away from home. In this case, know that transferring to a school that’s closer to home is an option, and may be the best possible alternative. 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.

While anyone who has been to college knows that it isn’t one big never-ending party (nor would most parents want it to be!), it should still be a positive, fulfilling, and growth-inspiring period in your child’s life. If your child’s happiness seems to be compromised at any point by homesickness, be ready to listen and educate yourself on what you can do to alleviate the pressure. It is my hope that together you and your child will be able to achieve the amazing college experience both of you have been hoping for.

 

 

 

How Parents Can Dial Down the Pressure This School Year

In my last post, I talked about how our competitive, achievement-oriented culture is causing many young people to be overstressed, overscheduled, and burned out. This week, I want to discuss several ways in which parents can help make sure that the heat on the pressure cooker isn’t turned up damagingly high.

*First, realize you are doing damage. Even though it’s not what we parents intend, our high expectations put the most pressure of all on our children. A student who feels a few minutes’ chagrin at a teacher’s disappointment might beat herself up for days if Mom and Dad aren’t satisfied with her performance. Teens might act like they couldn’t care less about their parents, but the truth is that they do want to please us. In fact, some kids are experiencing symptoms ranging from stomachaches to severe depression due to the day-to-day stress they encounter at school and at home. So if, for instance, your daughter comes home with four As and one B, don’t ask, “What happened? Why did you get the B in this course?” Instead, focus on how great the As are. You’re still letting your child know that top marks are the goal—but you’re doing it in a much healthier and celebratory way than by being immediately disappointed over the one grade that was lacking.

*Accept that not all kids are the same. Resist the natural tendency to compare your own children to each other, to their classmates, and to your friends’ children. Never forget that kids develop at different rates, and that they also have different talents and abilities. No two children are ever going to be alike, and that’s a good thing! Our world needs variety and uniqueness. And trust me—your kids will be happy adults only if they too learn to love and be okay with themselves as they are and for who they are. So, I’m sorry if you wanted your son to follow in his older brother’s footsteps and be a straight-A student as well as a star athlete. If he is not so good at school and prefers the arts, you’d better love him for that just as well. Ultimately, the most important thing you can do to help your children is to love them for who they are.

*Be willing to let some things go. All parents struggle with striking a balance between holding their kids accountable and letting them get away with too much. Especially in today’s culture, it’s easy to err on the side of expecting too much, so take time to evaluate what expectations are actually realistic and what achievements are really important. For example, come to terms with the fact that your teen may never quite get up on time or make her bed before school. And realize that neither of those things is likely to ruin her life. Instead of getting caught up in making sure that every box is checked all of the time, try to keep the big picture in mind. Everyone will be much less stressed if you can resist the urge to micro-manage each and every task. So instead of fixating on little things that weren’t completed perfectly, focus on your children’s successes!

*Teach kids to be easier on themselves. In any given middle or high school, chances are that a majority of students tend to focus much more of their time brooding over the test they bombed than celebrating the one they aced. And as a result of magnifying what they perceive as failures, these young people reinforce in their minds just how “subpar” they think they are. If you suspect that your child has a tendency to beat himself up, help him to refocus the way he looks at life. Specifically, try to direct his attention to all of the things he does well instead of allowing him to fixate on his few slip-ups and shortcomings. The best way to teach this is to model such behavior. I think that everyone—not just young people—can benefit from showing ourselves more compassion and love. The bottom line is we’re all human—and thus fallible. So instead of demanding perfection from ourselves in every situation, we need to learn to cut ourselves a lot more slack.

*Discourage overscheduling. Between school, soccer practice, dance class, church, friends, family, community service, and more, it’s easy for kids to become overextended. In fact, many driven teens have trouble remembering the last weeknight (or weekend!) during which they had a significant amount of free time. It’s not unusual for young people to crack under the pressure of what can be sixteen (or more)-hour days, and parents often don’t recognize the strain until their children become physically affected. Outside of what’s required of them in school, encourage your kids to focus on activities that bring them the most joy. In the long run, developing their skills in a few things they’re good at will help them much more than trying to do a little of everything and burning out on all of it. If you see your teen starting to become overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to say no to the next time commitment request he or she makes.

*Get help if it is needed. You had your “bad” subjects in school, and chances are your child will too. If she is really giving this subject or class her all but is still too far below the mark, search for ways to get academic help. A tutor is certainly a good idea if you can find one who is affordable and qualified. You might also ask your child’s teacher if she can spend a little extra time with her or recommend someone who could give out-of-school help. Getting your child the help she needs can make a world of difference in her performance and boost her confidence. Even with a parent’s support, what a child perceives as a failure can have a big impact on her self-esteem.

*Promote exercise. This is extremely important! If your child is already involved in a sport or athletic activity, great! It will help him feel more relaxed and stronger, it will improve his sleep, and it’s also a great natural anti-depressant. If physical activity isn’t a big part of your teen’s life, encourage him to find a way to be active that he enjoys. As I have written in previous blogs, exercise is the single most important thing your child, you, or anyone else can do to become less stressed and happier right now. It’s a fantastic energizer, and it actually opens you up to future change by invigorating your mind and body. You might even consider making physical activity a family event! Go for a hike in the mountains, for a swim at the YMCA, or just go for a walk around the neighborhood. You’ll all benefit from the quality time together as well.

Whenever I’m faced with the difficult parental task of setting guidelines and expectations, a question I now ask myself is, What kind of future am I encouraging my son, Josh, to build for himself? It’s helpful for me to remember that even if my son does succeed at the highest level, go to a top college, earn all As, and make millions of dollars, he might not be happy. Instead, he might be overwhelmed by stress and experience a breakdown, as I did. That’s certainly not a future I want for Josh, and I’m sure you feel the same way about your children.

So throughout this school year and into the future, always remember that the ability to cultivate happiness and balance is one of the best possible ways to set your child up for success. Yes, performance and doing one’s best are important—but not at the price of your child’s well-being.

It’s Time for Summer Camp…and Separation Anxiety

For generations, sending kids to summer camp has been an American tradition. For a lot of youngsters, camp is what their parents hope it will be: namely, a blast! But for other children, camp is something to be unsure of…or downright terrified by.

The fact is, many children experience some degree of separation anxiety when they are away from their home and parents. Many eventually learn to deal with the absence of Mom and Dad without experiencing undue stress. However, assuming that your homesick child will “get over it” might be a false—and even dangerous—assumption to make. Trust me, I know from firsthand experience!

I dealt with separation anxiety throughout my childhood, and one instance in particular was nearly disastrous. When I was ten, my parents sent me to a sleepaway sports camp in a different state. They figured I’d enjoy it because my brother did and because I loved sports. Boy, were my mom and dad wrong despite their best intentions! The first night away from home I barely slept, and the next day I felt panicked and sick.

Soon, I was experiencing full-blown anxiety attacks (though I didn’t recognize them as such). My heart was pounding so hard I thought I was going to die. After seventy-two hours away, I was willing to do anything to get home…so I tried to drink some of the paint in the art shop to force my ticket home. Luckily a counselor caught me before I could really harm myself, and my parents were called to bring me home early.

While my story may seem “extreme,” my point is that to kids, anxiety and apprehension are real. Homesickness won’t necessarily go away on its own. So if your child is anxious about a separation, please take his or her concerns seriously. Here are a few facts and pieces of advice that you might find helpful if camp is in your child’s summer plans:

*First, gauge your child’s level of anxiety before making summer plans. According to my friend Dr. Howard J. Rankin (a licensed clinical psychologist), about one in twenty-five children suffers from Separation Anxiety Disorder. It goes beyond “normal” homesickness and can have long-lasting negative effects on your child’s development. Specifically, kids whose separation anxiety is severe may:

  • Worry that something might happen to you or other loved ones while you are separated
  • Suffer from nightmares
  • Manifest physical symptoms, such as a stomachache or a panic attack
  • Cling to you, especially in an “age-inappropriate” way
  • Refuse to go to a particular destination, such as school…or camp

If you suspect that your child might have Separation Anxiety Disorder, please seek the advice of a medical professional! As my story proves, sending a child who suffers from Separation Anxiety Disorder away may end up doing more harm than good.

Now, what about children who are nervous or apprehensive about leaving for camp, but who are not severely anxious? Here are a few things you can do to alleviate their worries and ease the transition:

*Talk it over with your child. Before signing up for any camp or away-from-home activity, talk to your child about it. Ask him how he’s feeling and what he thinks about these plans. Above all, be sure to acknowledge your child’s feelings as legitimate. Even if you don’t believe there’s any real reason for him to be upset, remember that his feelings and fears are very real in his own mind. It’s a good idea to let your child have some say in decision making—if he flat-out doesn’t want to go to camp, don’t force him! I repeat, do not force him!! You might also consider giving him a choice—day camp as opposed to sleepaway, for example.

*Stay calm and positive. If your prospective camper voices worries, acknowledge them, but don’t feed into them by adding your own apprehensions to the pile. (And certainly don’t bring up worrisome what-ifs yourself—for example, “I just don’t know how I’m going to make it a whole week without you here, Junior!”) Instead, focus on camp’s positive aspects. Remind your child of how much fun she’ll have and what she’ll learn. And don’t make a big deal out of the drop-off—if you get emotional, your child is more likely to lose control too. Lastly, if you do receive an upset phone call, email, or letter, don’t make a fuss that your child can feed off of. Instead, try to talk to a counselor or camp administrator about your child’s homesickness before making a decision regarding how to proceed.

*Feed your child’s interests. Sometimes homesickness can be sparked by boredom and unhappiness—so don’t assume that just because you enjoyed science camp in your youth, for example, your child will too. It’s always a good idea to make sure that any camp you’re considering for your child is a good fit for him. After all, if he’s happy and engaged, his attention is more likely to be focused on what’s right in front of him, and not on what he’s missing.

*Let your child take “home” with her. Your child may be traveling miles away, but there’s no reason why she needs to leave home behind altogether. Send familiar objects with her, such as a favorite stuffed animal, a small picture of you, a handwritten note, and/or phone numbers. She’ll feel less cut off from everything that’s familiar and will therefore be less likely to experience severe homesickness. It’s even better if she can go to camp with a friend from home.

Ultimately, I believe that there are very few children who won’t at least feel a twinge of homesickness when overnight camp—or any significant separation—rolls around. But if you approach the situation positively and rationally and encourage your child to do the same, you’ll both be better prepared for the separation—and you will be better equipped to determine if your child’s anxiety levels aren’t normal or healthy.

 

Apprehension Adjustment: Helping Your Freshman Fret Less

In my first post I talked about the very, very important topic of anxiety in college students. Once again, as the fall semester is taking off, I’d like to remind you of how important it is to be aware that depression, anxiety, and—most unfortunately—even suicides are growing problems at colleges and universities across America.

That said, my intent isn’t to make every parent who reads my blog panic. The truth is, while stress can escalate to dangerous levels, it’s actually very normal for new college students to feel anxious. After all, college means a lot of big changes! Your student will be leaving the familiar faces and surroundings of high school and getting used to a totally new environment away from his support system. Plus, even if he doesn’t admit it to you, he’s probably at least a little concerned about doing well in his classes. In these kinds of circumstances, jitters are totally understandable.

The best news for us parents is that educating yourself about how you can deal with (and possibly alleviate) your student’s anxiety can make a huge difference in the kind of college experience he has. My own son won’t start college for another two years, but since this topic is close to my heart, I’m already reading up on it and talking to friends who have been there, and I would like to share a few things I’ve learned with you:

  • You can help take the edge off 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 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 can come home for fall break. Also, take advantage of technology like Skype and set (and keep) a weekly date.
  • Follow your child’s lead. Yes, it can be difficult for us parents to suppress our instinct to protect and guide our children at all times. However, try to 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. Lastly, allow her to guide college-to-home communication. Remember that the phone is not supposed to be an umbilical cord, and it’s okay to be a bit disconnected from your teen if that’s what she wants. And if your child prefers email, get on the digital train.
  • Don’t downplay your child’s worries. If your child calls home and says that she is worried or depressed, always 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.

 

More Than Just “College Jitters”: A Warning for Parents

After a long, hot summer, we are finally staring autumn in the face—which means that a new academic year is starting. A lot of families I know have teens who are going away to college for the first time. It’s really wonderful to watch how eager the students are to start this new stage and how proud their parents are of their accomplishments. In a lot of cases, I know that the upcoming year will predominantly hold excitement, growth, and achievement for these newly minted college men and women. But unfortunately, I also know from personal experience that some teens will face unanticipated—and even dangerous—obstacles in the coming weeks as they try to adjust to their new environments.

If you’ve read my book, you know that I devote an entire chapter to my own college years. And for the most part, that chapter is not a happy one. As a college student, I suffered from debilitating perfectionism, anxiety, and depression, even necessitating a semester-long leave of absence from school as well as a transfer. As I describe in detail, I was able to keep up my grades, but my social life suffered. I relied heavily on the emotional support of my parents, driving the forty-five minutes from school to their home on a near-nightly basis. When my schedule forced me to stay in my dorm, I smoked and drank—not for fun, but because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get through the nights without something to take the edge off. And unfortunately, I’m not the only one.

While researching the topic of anxiety in college students recently, I was shocked to discover the following:

  • 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.

In my opinion, it is vitally important that all parents of college students know that while some anxiety is normal during the college transition, it can quickly escalate to unhealthy levels. We as parents need to know what to look for and how to help.

First, if your child has suffered from significant separation anxiety or has seen a psychiatrist in the recent past, it might be a good idea to encourage him to attend a college or university that’s located within an hour or so of your home. That way, if he does need to come home for support during the weekends—or even every night during the week—he can. Transferring to a more distant school later on is always an option.

No matter where your child decides to enroll—whether it’s far or near—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 and let her know that she is not alone!

When I was struggling in college, I thought that I was the only one having trouble 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 speak up.

Remember, 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 him that he does not have to live with these troubling and debilitating feelings—counseling and medication can help him take control of his life again. Be very involved each step of the way if your child does decide to seek help, whether it’s through his college or an outside doctor. And above all, please remember that difficulties adapting do not mean that your child is weak or that you have somehow failed as a parent!