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How to Support Your Teen When They Leave for College

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We anticipate college as a time for our children to thrive with newfound independence. But it’s also common for college students to experience mental illness, potentially for the first time. To support our university-bound children, we can anticipate challenges they may face in a new setting, and be equipped with tools to assist in instances of need.

College is a major transition for most young people. Some struggle with learning self-sufficiency for the first time. A number of factors can cause students to experience prolonged overwhelming emotions or begin exhibiting signs of serious mental illnesses. Best Colleges notes common diagnoses among matriculants include anxiety, depression, suicide, eating disorders and addiction.

Students affected by mental illness come in no small number. A recent post from the online MSW program at the University of Southern California notes that suicide rates on college campuses are higher than many would expect. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 80 percent of college students feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities, and 50 percent were so anxious that it interfered with academics. In 2013, an American Psychological Association survey of counseling center directors found 21 percent of counseling center students had severe mental health concerns and 40 percent had mild ones.

As parents, we can aid and support our college-bound children through their transition in many ways.

1. Prepare

Equip your children with knowledge about the mental health struggles they may face at school. Tell them what signs to look out for, and provide necessary tools to contextualize unfamiliar feelings. Naming stress factors and setting realistic expectations can ease the shock of the transition.

2. Support

Show your children that you are available to hear about both the exciting and stress-inducing elements of their college lives. Begin communicating about college as early as the application process, and make sure you don’t overreact to your child’s normal stress levels. If your child is struggling, you can be a source of engagement and support.

3. Look out

Keep an eye out for indicators that your children could be experiencing mental illness. NAMI outlines a variety of common warning signs including feeling sad and withdrawn for more than two weeks, trying to or making a plan to harm yourself, undergoing mood and behavioral changes, and feeling intense worries or fears.

4. Model stress management

Prepare your student for stress management by modeling effective coping mechanisms and self-care behaviors. Everyday Health suggests college students benefit from breathing and meditation exercises, consistent sleep hygiene, and spending time doing things they love.

5. Get help

Students experiencing mental illness should seek professional help. Be attuned to your child’s needs, and point them in the direction of on or off-campus mental health services, or any other helpful online resources, such as those gathered by Best Colleges.

College students experiencing mental illness can feel scared and alone — but they’re not. As parents, it’s our job to be available to our children as sources of emotional support, and to help them get the professional care they need.

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