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!


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

  1. Todd,
    I’m so glad that you’re raising these important issues. So often, but students and parents deal with these issues in isolation, for fear of being marginalized. The statistics you list show just how many young people today are suffering needlessly. Thanks for sharing your own perspective, so that others know they’re not alone. And I’m sure parents will find helpful advice in your suggestions!

  2. Hi Todd,

    Despite the abysmal developments over the past several years at OXBT, it appears you are doing very well. Congratulations! I’ll look forward to future posts on your blog.

    While in retirement, I’ve been busy developing a second career as a lecturer. Last fall, I began offering a class called Classic Comedians at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute here in Palm Desert. Each session is devoted to one legendary comic; i.e. Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Bob Hope, George Burns, Jack Benny, etc.

    Based upon the positive response I received from my students I began giving presentations all around the Palm Springs area including a series of three lectures at the Rancho Mirage Library attended by over 200 people..

    Now I’ve begun approaching cruise lines to become a cruise lecturer and I’m starting with good success. I’ve been offered a six-star 10-day Caribbean cruise next spring and am in negotiations with several other high-end cruise lines.

    Keep up the good work!



  3. Todd, I am launching a new venture, CollegeBound Coaching, this coming month, and am focusing on helping high school students to grow into happy, well-adjusted people, not just getting into the “right” college.
    I call my approach “student life coaching,” integrating educational consulting with life coaching.
    I found this to be a valuable article which I plan to share with my future clients, as well as with my family and friends.
    I hope we can stay in touch, as I have the feeling that I can continue to learn a lot from you !
    Phil Sloan

  4. Todd, Being on the school Council and school committee along with an alcohol and drug coalition I thought I knew most of the statistics, however, you bring to light some very sobering ones which I have passed on to others. Keep up the great work!


  5. I work with a nonprofit that helps urban, low-income students transition to college and succeed and eventually graduate. I think this is a great blog post to share with their parents and family members as they make this huge transition. Thanks for sharing, Todd!

  6. Todd, this is very perceptive and useful advice which every parent can benefit from. So many of the warning signs dont seem as such and can be chalked up as “typical” behaviour. This is very important information that can make a positive difference for many families. Thanks!

  7. This was a welcome wake up call. Thanks, Todd, for reminding me of some of the less bright aspects of those college years. I will make an extra effort to not only stay in touch but also to let my girls know that being anxious or down can be a pretty normal part of this experience. As always, your insight, honesty and compassion seems to help those around you achieve more of all those qualities

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