August brings the familiar ritual of parents and soon-to-be college freshmen packing up for move-in day. Amid the final flurry of preparations, there’s one task that shouldn’t be overlooked: anticipating and discussing the challenges ahead. Despite their academic talents and extracurricular achievements, many teenagers now headed to college lack the emotional maturity for their first real encounter with adult independence.
Parents may feel confident about the transition because their teen has gotten this far; perhaps the family has teamed up to navigate the arduous path to success in high school and in the college application process. If the new collegian is headed to a school that’s a good fit, the hard part may seem over.
But the ascent from high school to college is filled with new complications, and the more that parents have done along the way to help their teens prepare, the less ready their offspring may be to handle problems without their help. Parents will face a new dynamic in trying to understand from afar when best to intervene and when to hang back. And colleges, whose privacy rules about students’ academic and health information can often keep parents in the dark, can’t be relied on to step in as watchdogs or caretakers.
Last year, fully a third of college students received treatment at campus counseling centers.
As parents of former college students ourselves and as mental-health professionals dealing with this age group, we have observed the rising rate of mental illness on campus with growing concern. Both of us have seen young patients with crippling anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and even incidents of self-harm who have been unable to adapt to the demands of college life.
More than 85% of college students described feeling “overwhelmed,” and 51% reported feeling at some point in the past year that “things were hopeless,” according to the American College Health Association’s annual survey in 2018. Last year, fully a third of college students received treatment at campus counseling centers, according to the latest annual Health Minds Study, a web-based student survey of 155,000 students from nearly 200 campuses.
What explains the emotional fragility of today’s college students? Many factors have contributed to the problem. Family life in the U.S. has come to feel less stable in the face of globalization, the home and job losses of the Great Recession, income insecurity and significant rates of divorce. The 1990s saw the emergence of the internet and, soon afterward, the deeply unsettling influence of social media.
In response to these and other rapid social changes, American parents have moved away from the traditional emphasis on encouraging childhood independence, seeking instead to exert ever more control over their children’s lives. The pitfalls of this approach include over-preparation, which can place academic achievement at the center of a child’s self-esteem; over-protection, which keeps children from making their own mistakes and learning from them; and over-investment, when parents try to meet their own needs by pushing a child forward in their image.
The result is what we now see on campus: a generation of young people who often lack the maturity and resilience to deal with the emotional ups and downs of early adulthood and the constant striving expected of them as they face an uncertain future.
There is no Advanced Placement class for emotional readiness, but research has shown that it is the best predictor of whether a student will adjust successfully to college life. In our own work, we’ve found that readiness is best defined by a student’s ability to overcome three common negative mind-sets: a fear of not belonging, a fear of not making it academically and unrealistic expectations about performance and success. All three can exacerbate a host of underlying psychological problems.
Fear of not belonging can arrive quickly in the initial rush to make new friends. Far from home and familiar social supports, many incoming students struggle with feelings of loneliness. Parents may find themselves fielding worrisome calls or texts: “I can’t find the right club”; “Not clicking with roommate”; “I got dropped from rush.”
For some students, a single less-than-stellar grade feels like the harbinger of an inevitable fall.
When social life fails, college often fails. If students become socially detached, they grow less inclined to pursue their academic goals. That happened with Dr. Hibbs’s own son, Jensen. After a successful first semester socially and academically, a harsh rejection by his best college friend precipitated a depressive spiral. Jensen coped by isolating himself, even eating alone in his room to avoid encounters in the dining hall. As his depression deepened, he missed classes and assignments. He saw a college counselor, but no one from the college notified his parents of any concerns.
Fortunately, Jensen eventually told a friend and then his parents that he felt suicidal. That helped to lead the way to some solutions, including therapy. He took a medical leave, transferred to a college close to home and completed a degree. Most problems of belonging are not as consequential, but loneliness is often underestimated in youth and can be a sign of trouble ahead.
The fear of not making it academically can prove the most difficult adjustment for students used to doing well in high school: “I’m in over my head”; “I bombed my first Chem exam”; “I’m just wasting your money.” The angst induced by receiving disappointing grades, with so much at stake, can lead to unjustified shame, premature discouragement and an inability to bounce back. For some, a single less-than-stellar grade feels like the harbinger of an inevitable fall.
One such student’s fears appeared absurd to those familiar with her stellar K-12 academic record. But at a campus party, trying to drown her distress over a recent C+, the former valedictorian drank too much, barely escaped rape, returned to her dorm and intentionally cut her left wrist. The blood shocked her into getting help from her dorm’s resident adviser, who took her to the emergency room for 15 stitches. The next day she sought treatment, soon entered our care and remained in school.
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Having unrealistic expectations can lead students to respond to even ordinary stumbles with profound disappointment and self-blame. In its extreme form, it becomes destructive perfectionism, the distorted belief that one has to be perfect in every endeavor. The greatest danger occurs when students experience such struggles but don’t share them with others.
A few years ago, an aspiring track star with a scholarship to a large university saw Dr. Hibbs for depression prompted by a hamstring injury in his first semester that prevented him from competing and isolated him from his teammates. To cope with this setback and worries about his scholarship and his future, he retreated into silence and began smoking marijuana every day. Failing a drug test was what got him help; his coach made therapy a condition of rejoining the team. Students who haven’t faced such adversity before are usually the least prepared for it and the least likely to seek or receive help.
In the face of today’s veritable college mental-health epidemic, students, parents and schools each need to embrace unaccustomed roles.
For students, a key first step is acknowledging how difficult the transition may be and the possibility that they may need help. A 2013 report on an intervention program published in the American Journal of College Health found that participants’ top reasons for not initially seeking counseling were “My problems are not serious enough to warrant assistance” (66%), “I don’t have enough time” (27%) and “I prefer to manage my problems on my own” (18%).
In many cases, students simply lack the information or insight to recognize their own problems. But the onset of most mental health disorders occurs between the ages of 14 and 26, when the developing brain is undergoing hormonally driven change. College freshmen are especially at risk for developing several of them, including anxiety disorder and depression.
Students navigating their new environment must also manage an adolescent-to-young-adult brain that is wired for thrills and risk taking. At this age, the limbic system, where drives and emotions originate, is outpacing the maturing of the frontal lobes, where executive control arises; the accelerator overtakes the brakes. This imbalance puts freshmen at particular risk for excessive alcohol and drug use, reckless driving, unwanted sexual activity, sports-related injuries and addictive internet usage. Students need to understand that self-restraint is one of the best ways to avoid derailing a college career.
How can parents promote successful adaptation to college while simultaneously trying to let go? They need to talk to their children about the risks of college life, but they must learn to listen, not to lecture. Parent-child communication skills should shift in tone at this juncture from advice-giving or rule-setting to collaborative problem-solving. If parents are able to accept a child’s lapses without judgment or blame, their implicit message becomes: “You can recover. This is part of growing up.”
Perhaps the hardest emotional milestone for parents to achieve involves the promotion of a child’s autonomy. As the psychoanalyst Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter, famously said about the nature of parenting, “Your job is to be there to be left.” Though many parents provide emotional and financial support long past college, it remains their job to promote true independence, partly by volunteering to reduce their control.
Parental guilt is a frequent emotion when the transition to college is especially difficult, but it is important to remember that a rocky start can be a useful experience for a young adult. It’s a reminder that life takes many turns and isn’t linear.
For their part, colleges need to become more active in addressing the needs of vulnerable students and offering freshmen enough resources for the transition. One of the most important implications of an 18th birthday is that parents no longer have legal authority over the student as a patient. Many parents are confused—and sometimes indignant—when they first learn about the federal privacy laws governing a college student’s medical and mental health treatment and their educational records as well.
College administrators often cite these restrictions, which they are legally bound to observe, as reasons for not informing parents about their child’s adjustment difficulties. They could instead do a better job of explaining to parents that they can discuss these restrictions with their children and ask them to agree to waive them, in their own self-interest. Students can grant permission for campus academic advisers and health-care providers to communicate directly with parents should significant problems arise. Without it, college counselors find themselves unable to help when fielding frantic calls from parents: “I sent a happy kid to college—what happened?”; “How could my daughter be so depressed that she needs medication?”
Colleges are increasingly teaching students to recognize the signs of stress and mental illness in themselves and their peers, and they are working to reduce the stigma of using mental health services. Many are instituting programs that emphasize the importance of a healthy lifestyle and teach skills like mindfulness. More colleges now recognize the value of student mentoring for vulnerable groups, like underrepresented minorities. And the idea of “parents as partners” is beginning to become an accepted framework for promoting a successful transition to college; most schools now provide parent orientation programs that emphasize how to effectively support their student’s independence.
A cultural shift is beginning to take place, replacing the old “sink or swim” philosophy of college survival with one that recognizes the diverse needs and vulnerabilities of young people. But when these resources aren’t enough, colleges should make it easy for students to take a leave (for academic, medical or personal reasons) with a minimal amount of stigma, embarrassment or financial loss. A setback doesn’t mean they don’t belong in college. It means they should seek support.
A young person’s passage from home to college requires dramatic changes on the part of both generations, and we are all learning to handle it with more sensitivity and forethought. So as the big day approaches, with clothes and bedding and cherished mementos piled high, take a few minutes to sit down with your child and look ahead. Healthy attitudes and better coping skills can make these sometimes stressful years the best of their young lives.
—Dr. Rostain is a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Hibbs is a marital and family psychologist. They are the authors of “The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years,” published last April by St. Martin’s Press.
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