Helping Your Children Cope with College Stress

By David Votruba, PhD

My daughter is a college freshman and she hasn’t been herself lately. She doesn’t call as much as she did when she first got to college, and when she does call, she seems stressed. I’m concerned about her and don’t know what to do. Do you have any ideas?

A. Most college students find the transition to college involves acclimating to a new living environment, new relationships, new choices, and new identities. Although these changes can feel exciting, they can also feel overwhelming. While college students often enjoy the freedom that college brings, they can also feel confused and anxious as they face new challenges without the ready aid of their existing support systems.

Just as the new college student faces important adjustments, parents often find that their roles and relationships shift during this transition. Parents should monitor their own reactions and proactively address any difficulties that arise at home or in the parent-college student relationship.

Parents can minimize difficulties by engaging their college students in collaborative discussions about how this transition will affect their relationship. For example, parents can express their need to maintain regular contact with their students and negotiate a flexible schedule of phone, email, and in-person contacts. Like all meaningful conversations, this conversation should occur in-person and during a period of relative calm, preferably several weeks before the students leave. Such discussions are important because they communicate the message that the parents are still there for their students, albeit in new and different ways.

Once a flexible schedule of contacts is established, any significant variations from it should be discussed. The original schedule may have been too frequent or infrequent and may no longer be working. If this is true, then a collaborative discussion of the problem and any new expectations should help. Alternatively, significant changes may be indicative of more serious adjustment problems. If this is the case, then the parent’s nonjudgmental and direct expression of concern is likely to elicit a positive response from the student.

College students usually begin to adjust to campus life approximately six to eight weeks after enrollment. If your student’s emotional, social, or academic problems persist, or if she exhibits unusual, dangerous, or dysfunctional behaviors, you should secure a commitment from her to seek a mental health consultation and follow-up with her to be sure that this commitment is kept. If necessary, you may also solicit additional help from your student’s academic or residence hall advisors.

Despite the challenges posed by college adjustment, most students and families navigate it successfully. While you should expect changes in your student’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior during this transition, collaborative communication can help to keep these changes positive.

David Votruba
David Votruba

David Votruba PhD PLC is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in private practice in Ann Arbor, MI. A graduate of Grosse Pointe South High School, Dr. Votruba also works for both the University of Michigan Division of Student Affairs and the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute Treatment Clinic in Ann Arbor.

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