Starting college can be overwhelming as young adults prepare to be on their own for the first time. It’s no picnic for parents, either, as they worry about how their students will manage their newfound independence.
So how can students and parents navigate this change without getting too overwhelmed? Three mental health experts shared tips they recommend to ease the transition.
Accept that change is stressful
Any major life change brings on a great amount of stress, according to Dr. Gretchen Baldwin, clinical coordinator for counseling services at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
“The more life changes a person faces, whether positive or negative, the more stress a person experiences,” Baldwin said. “Being aware and ready for this stress is one of the most important steps a student can take to prepare for college.”
Another challenge college students often face is adjusting to the social environment. And it can be even worse for students who are predisposed to depression or anxiety, said Dr. David Spano, director for the Christine F. Price Center for Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, North Carolina.
Both echoed that for college students, newfound responsibility can be daunting. For many, it’s the first time they’re completely responsible for themselves. Managing things like diet, exercise and sleep are critical for physical and mental health, but many students struggle with making these basics a priority.
Finding healthy ways to navigate change
First off, having a support system is key to adjusting to college, said Katrice Byrd, a licensed clinical social worker at Novant Health Midtown Family Medicine in Charlotte.
“Connecting with other college students that are going through a similar situation is important,” Byrd said. “You can tell yourself ‘I’m not the only one that’s going through this right now,’ which can make you feel better.”
Regular routines are important for managing stress and navigating new responsibilities, Byrd added. Things like waking up and going to bed at the same time each day, eating regular meals, doing homework, studying and preparing for the next day can help add structure to your day. Limiting time on social media can also be helpful, as well as putting your phone away an hour before bedtime.
A common scenario that Byrd sees in her patients, particularly women, is that they will neglect their physical and mental health in favor of things like school or a job. Prioritizing yourself is vital, she said. As the saying goes, she added, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”
Finally, it’s critical to be aware of and take advantage of available resources. Most schools have counseling services — many being free to students — and some even have psychiatrists. Academic success resources can also be beneficial, as well as residence life staff in dorms.
How can parents help?
Parents play an important role in both preparing students for college and supporting them while there.
Developing independence starts early, and Byrd stressed that assigning children age-appropriate responsibility is vital and prepares students for leaving home. It’s also important for students to develop emotional responsibility and resilience.
Communication is key, Byrd said.
“When you’re leaving family you’ve been attached to for 18 years, conversations need to be held around things like, ‘How often will we talk? What are things you have to prepare for and look forward to?’” Byrd said. “When they start experiencing things like homesickness, they know that it’s normal.’”
Byrd also stressed that it is important to keep those lines of communication open after students leave. This means not discounting their feelings or opinions, and trusting your student. When these lines of communication are open, it’s easier to provide emotional support and see changes in behavior that could indicate they’re struggling.
It’s also important for parents to trust their students and to find the balance between involvement and separation. And if they’re so-called “helicopter parents” who have hovered over every decision and event in their child’s life, it’s time to back away.
“If they can complete the task themselves, let them,” Byrd said.
Unlike in high school, while students are in college, parents can’t call the school to get information like their students’ grades, and the school won’t be able to allow the parent into their child’s room due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Finally, remember to pay attention to big behavior changes. By paying attention, it’s possible for parents to spot serious issues like depression or anxiety, and encourage the student to seek counseling before they get out of hand.