Graduates, stop worrying so much about being successful.

Congratulations, graduates! (And parents of graduates, too.) As you gaze with pride on your diplomas, I’m sure you’re also thinking about what comes next. No doubt you’re planning how to build a successful life with your newly earned degree. I wish you the best of luck as you search for a job and embark on a career…but I also want to extend a viewpoint that you may not have heard in graduation speeches.

It’s simple: Happiness and success are not—let me repeat, are not—necessarily the same thing.

Aren’t they? you ask. I’ve been working my whole life to get a good education and to earn this degree—all so I can hopefully get a job in the field I want and do it well. You’re telling me that successfully achieving this goal won’t make me happy?

Well, no. Don’t get me wrong: Getting a promotion or being recognized for a professional achievement can make you really happy—briefly. But what about all of the weeks, months, and years of work that came before that moment of success?

Personal experience and extensive observation have convinced me that the lifestyle required to become “successful” makes you anything but happy. Long hours, devices that tether us to work 24/7, insufficient time with friends and family, and constant stress drive you into the ground, not to new heights of fulfillment.

The problem is, as a culture, we’re so focused on getting to the next rung of the ladder that we have forgotten how important quality of life is. We have accepted stress, unfulfilling careers, strained relationships, and little free time as the price we have to pay for the “good life.” Meanwhile, happiness has totally gotten lost in the equation, and the lives we’re living aren’t “good” at all.

So, graduates, here’s my advice to you if you’d like to keep your success from destroying your happiness:

  • Do work you enjoy. First (as I’m sure you’ve been told before), try to go into a field that you enjoy—not one that you think will make you rich. While workaholism can sour any passion if taken too far, you’ll generally be a lot more fulfilled if your success is driven by work you like. If you reach the top because you’ve been doing something that you’re passionate about and that you feel is inherently worth your time and energy—and if you keep your work-life balance healthy—you’ll also be happy. It’s when you blindly pursue the symbols of success without regard for the other areas of your life that you run into problems.
  • …But realize that you are not your work. What you do is certainly part of your identity, but it should never become your primary source of self-worth. If you ever begin to feel that the only thing you have to offer the world are achievements that happen on the job, it’s probably time to take a step back. I understand being proud of your career accomplishments and of other things in your life, but I have learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can be truly happy only if you draw your self-worth primarily from your relationships: first and foremost from your positive relationship with yourself, and secondarily from your relationships with other people and with your Higher Power (if you believe in one).
  • Understand that you’re never “stuck.” If you’re less satisfied with your field or career than you’d hoped, realize that it’s never too late to reinvent yourself and move in a direction that will make you happier. Find mentors, take classes, pursue certifications, or network—just don’t settle for dissatisfaction and a job you dread.
  • Choose happiness every day. With all of the responsibilities on your plate, nothing is likely to improve unless you specifically focus on it. So make working towards a happier life one of the two or three priorities you absolutely must accomplish each day. To remind yourself, put a note where you can see it—maybe on the refrigerator or bathroom mirror. I could write a book (and have!) on how to infuse happiness into your life, but briefly, some happiness-boosting activities you can choose to incorporate into each day include: exercising, reading motivational material, learning new things, helping others, expressing gratitude, spending time on a hobby, fully engaging (sans devices!) with loved ones, etc.
  • Look at the road ahead of you through the eyes of those who have traveled it. Yes, I know you’re young right now, but someday, you’ll be looking back at and evaluating your life. You don’t want it to be filled with regrets. That’s why I’d highly recommend reading an article called “Top Five Regrets of the Dying” by Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative nurse. Like Bronnie, I believe that individuals who are nearing the end of their time on Earth may see things more clearly than those of us who are still “in the thick of things.” And I also believe that it’s definitely not a coincidence that nearly all individuals who are facing death share the same regrets. One of them is “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” Turns out, professional success doesn’t hold a candle to being a good spouse, parent, and friend in terms of the fulfillment it brings.

Grads, you get only one shot at life. If you prioritize happiness and the things that really matter right out of the gate, you’ll also be creating a firm foundation on which to build professional success. Why? You have a strong support system, a soft place to land, and a healthy work-life balance—all of which will contribute to your creativity, motivation, and engagement over the long haul.

Congratulations, Class of 2014. Here’s to happiness!

Calling All Graduates: Tips for Taking on the World

’Tis the season…for graduation! All across the country, students are throwing their caps into the air and basking in the glow of their newly acquired diplomas. If you’re one of them, let me first extend my heartfelt congratulations. Whether you’ve just finished high school or have a technical, four-year, or graduate degree, you have put in years of hard work to get to where you are today, and you should feel incredibly proud of yourself.

So, what’s next? If you’re like most graduates, you’ll probably be filling out as many job applications as you can get your hands on—or maybe you’re planning on staying in school and applying for a higher degree. Whatever your goals are, I assume you’re aiming to be as successful as possible. That’s great—but as you shoot for the moon, don’t become so focused on your achievements and career that you neglect other important areas of your life.

Trust me, you don’t want to reach retirement only to look back and wish that you had spent more time with family and friends, or that you had focused less on making money and more on doing things you enjoyed. And you don’t want to spend decades in the workforce living a life of unhappiness, boredom, and constant stress while feeling that nothing you do is ever good enough.

To help you build a future that’s both successful and fulfilling, here are some of my tips for taking on the world while staying happy and balanced:

Live in your strengths. After graduation, focus on choosing a major (if you’re going to college) or finding a job (if you’ll be entering the workforce) that plays to your strengths. Take your time and consider all of your options instead of committing to the first opportunity that comes your way. The decisions you make today can have a very real impact on your long-term quality of life. Trust me, you don’t want to wake up 20 years from now stuck in a job that doesn’t inspire you and that may even make you miserable! Whenever possible, choose to do things that you’re good at and that you enjoy. You’ll be happier andhigher performing. (Plus, trying to shore up your weaknesses only causes you stress while yielding mediocre results.)

Always remember that you are good enough. In fact, you’re perfect and worthy of love just as you are! However, you might not always feel that way, especially when a job application is denied, when you’re passed over for a promotion, or when a future boss describes your errors and shortcomings in detail. Never make the mistake of believing that your worth comes from your achievements, paycheck, or even what others think about you.

Sweat the small stuff—but not too much. When you get the small things right—at work, in relationships, during home-improvement projects, and just about anywhere—the big things tend to take care of themselves. (Plus, baby steps are much less daunting!) Be aware, though, that one of the biggest causes of stress in our society is perfectionism. So while it’s important to get the small things right, keep in mind that 95 percent right is usually plenty. Don’t beat yourself up over that last 5 percent. We’re all human, and no one is perfect!

Be a team player. It’s a dog-eat-dog world only if you allow it to be. The truth is, you’ll accomplish more and be happier if you support others and allow them to support you.

Remember the Golden Rule. Treat others as you would like to be treated, whether you’re having a good day, a bad day, or anything in between. Being kind will help you to develop a reputation you can be proud of, and it will attract positive opportunities into your life. Best of all, it will make you and other people feel good!

Hang out with the right crowd. Leave frenemies, mean girls, bullies, and Negative Nancies behind. If you spend a significant amount of time around other people who are negative, your own outlook will begin to mirror theirs. Instead, gravitate toward people who refresh, energize, encourage, and support you. Remember that in terms of your attitude, habits, behaviors, relationships, and more, you’ll be the average of the five people you spend the most time with. So choose wisely!

Say—and write—thank you. Don’t forget the manners your mother taught you when you were young. A timely thank-you—or better yet, a handwritten note conveying appreciation—will have a powerful effect on others and help you cement and improve relationships. Plus, it’s always smart to give credit where credit is due: to your boss, to a trusted mentor, to a supportive friend, or even to your parents for the lessons they taught you!

Make good choices. Happiness isn’t winning the lottery or driving your dream car or dating a gorgeous celebrity. Happiness is the sum of all of the daily decisions you make: how you react to setbacks, who you spend time with, whether or not you allow yourself to dwell on mistakes, what you allow to influence you, how you see the world, and so (so!) much more. In other words, it’s not what happens to you; it’s how you look at and react to what happens to you that matters. And the choice is yours!

Feed your mind a positive diet every day. There’s more than enough bad news in the world. You’ll see it on TV and hear it from others every day. Keep things in perspective by reading, listening to, or watching something positive every day. Exposing yourself to new, constructive ideas dispels unnecessary stress and keeps you from becoming stuck in a self-destructive rut. (And even though they may sound hokey, motivational materials can change your life—it happened to me!)

Don’t leave home without a smile. In other words, be friendly! You never know—a smile and a “hello” could introduce you to a new friend, a future employer, or even Mr. or Mrs. Right. Plus, when you make friendliness a habit, you’ll attract smiles and goodwill in return.

Exercise. Exercise is one of the easiest, least expensive, and most effective ways to improve your physical, mental, and emotional health. When you’re active, you’ll feel more powerful, creative, energized, and balanced. You’ll sleep better, you’ll feel more relaxed, and you’ll be better equipped to deal with stress. Exercise has even been scientifically proven to be as effective as medication when combating depression! In a nutshell, it’s the best thing you can do right now—and throughout your life—to experience a quick boost in your happiness levels. So get rid of the excuses and make physical activity a permanent part of your routine.

Most of all, as you go out into the world, I implore you to really think about the differences between “success” and “happiness.” They aren’t always the same thing! Do what’s healthiest for you—not for your parents, your coworkers, or your friends. And whenever you have to choose between your close relationships and work, choose the former. Nobody looks back at age 80 and says, “Gee, I wish I had spent more time at the office and less time with my friends and family!”

Good luck, graduates! I can’t wait to see the wonderful impact you have on our world.

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.

Back to School; Back to Stress

It’s that time of year again: Back-to-school time (even though your kids may be in denial!). And as school systems across the country open their doors for The First Day, concerned parents are already in the throes of planning ahead for their children’s success.

I need to start looking into hiring an algebra tutor for my son, because last year’s math grade didn’t cut it. Is it too early to sign my daughter up for SAT-prep classes? Will the soccer team’s practice schedule interfere with piano lessons? Should I try to meet with my children’s teachers before school starts? And so it goes.

Yes, of course any loving parent wants the best for his or her kids. The reason why we’re asking so much from our kids and from ourselves is that we want them to stand out, to succeed, and to achieve as much as they can. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that subjecting children to relentless academic and extracurricular pressure may be doing more harm than good. We may not only be pushing our children to excel—in many cases, we’re pushing them over the edge too.

That’s why I think it’s so important to look at this topic right now, as our kids are at the beginning of a new school year. In this week’s post I want to examine “the childhood pressure cooker” a bit more closely, and next week, I’ll share some strategies to help you turn down the heat in your own home.

Kids—especially teens—are under a lot of pressure. Consider this: Hours spent on homework and extracurricular activities are on the rise among all age groups. Increasingly, every block of time is scheduled and structured. And for many high schoolers especially, every minute of the day is devoted to school, studying, homework, and other “necessary” activities ranging from sports to service work—to the exclusion of free time and fun. These teens—and their parents—are grappling with a very real fear that they won’t have what it takes to be at the top of the class, to get into a “good school,” and ultimately, to be “successful in the real world.”

Often, that pressure is too much for them to handle. Across America, teens are burning out and making self-destructive decisions. There’s an epidemic of teens and even pre-teens suffering from anxiety and depression, cutting themselves, and using prescription medications just to get through their day-to-day lives. Also, kids are drinking to excess and doing drugs on the weekends in order to escape this incredible pressure, even if only for one night. Most worrying, suicide is the third-leading cause of death among teens. Sixty percent say they’ve thought about it, and 9 percent of high schoolers admit they’ve attempted it at least once.

Is this extreme pressure cooker environment worth it? Absolutely not! Even if all of the pushing and over-scheduling and stress get your child into a top college, there is still no guarantee that he or she will be on the fast track to professional success. And is the payoff really worth the sacrifice, which some kids later describe in terms of “being deprived of a childhood”? If we truly have our children’s well-being at heart, we need to face the fact that forcing them into a mold of perfection isn’t working. If we really want our kids to grow up to be capable, creative, and inspired problem solvers, we need to focus less on their scores and grades and more on their happiness.

The change needs to start at home. In my opinion, it’s not going to be the experts who lead the way on this one. Yes, they can share the results of their studies and offer informed advice. But ultimately, it will be ordinary people changing what we are doing in our homes to help our kids grow up into healthy, well-adjusted, and fulfilled young men and women. We as parents must be the ones to make sure that the push for success isn’t eclipsing happiness. We must be the ones who teach our children that being human means not being perfect at everything, all the time.

As I said earlier, in my next post I will offer some suggestions to help you make sure that living in this high-pressure achievement culture doesn’t have lasting negative effects on your children. Until then, think about where your family’s priorities lie, what your kids’ school-life balance looks like, and what might need to change.

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!