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.

 

It’s Up to You…Your Happiness, That Is!

The phrase “happiness is a choice” is something we’ve all heard before. But have you ever really stopped to think about what it means? If you’re like me, your first reaction was probably something like, Yeah, right. If it were that easy we’d all be ecstatic all the time. Nobody feels stress or pain or worry because they want to. Those things are a part of life that we can’t do anything about.

Well, that line of thinking is actually correct…to an extent. You can’t magically rid yourself of bills or responsibilities or unforeseen accidents, or a million other things. But you can control how you respond and react to those negative circumstances.

If you know much about me or my story, then you’re probably aware that I struggled with feelings of anxiety, perfectionism, low self-esteem, and even depression for a lot of my life, before I finally suffered a breakdown at age thirty-six. So I know what I’m talking about when I say that no matter how out of control you think your life is, you really can change how happy and fulfilled you feel on a day-to-day basis.

It all comes down to figuring out a more positive way to react to the negative things that happen to you, as well as consciously infusing your life with more positive thoughts, people, and habits. For instance:

  • If you find that you’ve accidentally overdrawn your checking account, you could beat yourself up over this slip-up all day, then also complain to your spouse (or whoever will listen) about how stupid you are and how you wish your family wasn’t so financially strapped. OR, you could figure out why the mistake was made so you can prevent it from happening in the future, as well as begin thinking of some new ways to earn more income (or conversely, about some new ideas to cut your expenses)…and then focus on how to make the most of your evening.
  • Your coworkers are starting up the daily gripe-fest around the water cooler. You could join in by describing the latest condescending phone call you received from your mother-in-law. OR, you could turn the tide by congratulating everyone on the new client your company just signed.
  • Once again, the nightly news is describing mishap after calamity after setback, and as usual, your thoughts are starting to swirl into a vortex of doom and gloom. You could continue watching and let yourself become more discouraged. OR, you could turn the TV off and read a chapter of a motivational book, or go for a walk or a jog.

Now, you’ve got to realize that you’ll never wake up and have a perfect day, and that building a happier life for yourself won’t happen overnight. But I promise, when you decide to focus on the people, things, and behaviors that enrich and fulfill you, and that inspire your positive mental, physical, and spiritual growth, you will notice a big difference in your mindset and emotional state. Once you understand the concept of choosing to be happy, your life will begin to change for the better.

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!