I don’t think our educational system does a great job of preparing students for this. Colleges make a lot of effort but we as parents get caught up in the excitement and buying bedding and other dorm decor and our own emotions, we forget how they might feel.
So think about it from their standpoint for a moment. They’ve had the same set of friends for twelve years and now they are headed somewhere new with few people they know. They have to do everything on their own–laundry, buy books, find classes, follow a schedule and manage a calendar. Oh and the pressure to do well.
If they are anxious to begin with, struggle with impulsivity or other personality traits, they could be at risk for substance misuse to cope with the tsunami of changes so some conversation beforehand can help. Kids with disabilities of any kind whether physical or mental might also struggle more.
Ideally, you have had them do their own laundry and any other skills they’ll need away from home. So here are some tips for making that transition smoother.
1. Know where the clinic and mental health services are
Suicide is the #2 cause of death on college campuses and substance misuse accounts for its own set of deaths across the U.S. Don’t ever think this couldn’t happen to you because that’s what all of us think before it happened to us. So do listen for despair that makes your stomach lurch. Your gut knows.
Do some round about education with questions like: “Would you know the signs of alcohol poisoning in a friend or where to take them if that happened?” They may make fun, but they will tuck it away in their memory bank and think on it or look it up later.
When Richard went to college, a school smaller than his high school, I looked for the student health clinic when on the parent tour and asked about the mental health services. I remembered where it was and the procedure just in case.
Come halfway through his sophomore year, he broke up with a girlfriend, a toxic relationship that went south quickly. Later he would find out there was a lot of badmouthing and lying behind his back to smear his character which would explain the freeze out by so many of his friends who were females.
At the time it hit during another difficult transition at school and he became very anxious. He called me one night very upset and since he asked me directly for advice, I was able to give him step by step instructions of how he could go about tapping into services at the school if he wanted. He did seek them out, practiced the strategies the counselor suggested and found his way on his own. All I did was give him the steps at a time when he needed some handholding.
2. Ask what their expectations are.
Then ask them what their fears are. In that process you share your own expectations and fears because you can’t expect them to open up if you don’t. Listen more and lecture less. Nod but don’t judge. By talking about their fears they drag them out into the open and those fears lose their dragon teeth and become tamer.
3. Show confidence in their ability to navigate this new chapter.
Ask about specific things like, “Where do you get new books or used books on campus?” They may not have an answer, but the question will marinate and they’ll probably ask someone even if you don’t know it. Once you ask questions, express confidence that you know they will find their way. Don’t say things like, “You lose everything now. I don’t expect that to change!”
Tell them how you went and visited professors and how that made a difference. I told a story about wanting to get into a track that was full but I went to the professor I was able to negotiate my way in the program. So I didn’t give my son advice to go see his professors, I told a story and what the results were and it planted a seed.
4. Don’t be a helicopter parent.
Nothing will make it harder for a child being dropped off than your hovering and that includes hyper-texting them every minute to find out what they are doing. It’s their journey and not yours and they need space to figure it out. All you need to do is let them know that if you do need them, you are there to help.
5. Don’t expect perfection that first year
Going to UNC Chapel Hill had been my dream since age five. Being the first at my school to be accepted early admission was something for which I was very proud but it evaporated as I wrestled with confusion where things were. Navigation was never a strong suit. Finding my peeps was hard and my grades reflected my first semester misery.
UNC Chapel Hill was a huge school and I felt insignificant–like a tiny fish in an ocean. I went through sorority RUSH and was disillusioned when one of the sororities called my parents for my social credentials and I dropped out when I should have recognized that there was a group to which I would have been well suited. So that first or second year can come with a lot of agony, hence the freshmen fifteen which I found. By my junior year, I was more settled but the transition was very hard and I have never forgotten it. I did spend all four years trying to erase those miserable first semester grades.
6. Mail some love
Sometimes we need real mail to perk things up. You don’t have to go crazy but a package put together with love can be just the thing your child needs. Stupid ostrich pens that make them laugh or corny pictures of the dog. Pictures of a neat and clean room with, “Do you recognize this space?” And do mail something. It’s different getting mail. My dad was notorious for a sending a well-timed care package.
Here are some college resources:
- JED Campuses -JED is a mental health nonprofit that promotes mentally well campuses through a 4-year strategic plan
- Colleges with SUD recovery programs. Most of these are aimed at addiction recovery.
- College Re-entry –This program is dedicated to helping students with re-entry into college after having withdrawn from their studies. This could be due to any issue including a suicide attempt to loss of a parent or even due to cancer treatment.
- Interactive Screening Program (ISP) from AFSP, American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. This program is successfully used at many US colleges. It’s an anonymous online tool for students experiencing mental health issues or suicidal ideation. It’s anonymous until they make the choice to reach out. UCLA ISP Program
- It’s Real: College Students and Mental Health– There is a 20 minute film for incoming college freshmen and for high school juniors and seniors from the American foundation of suicide prevention. Your local AFSP chapter would have access to that and could arrange for it to be shown at venues in your area.
- Hold a Campus Out of the Darkness Walk– This can be for high school or college and illustrates support to those who suffer suicidal ideation
- Active Minds Chapters–Active Minds is a mental health organization at colleges across the US
- NPR Fresh Air Podcast: The Mental Health Epidemic on College Campuses