Adjusting to college life this year is unlike any other. Some students are on-campus, while others are at home or living off campus. College services have had to change to adapt to where students are and how they are connecting to coursework and college opportunities.
In a normal year, most first-year college kids start the year happy and excited, only to get a few weeks in and find they are struggling. It’s usually right about now that they have their first tests or papers due and they find college academics are harder than high school. The newness of being on campus and away from home is no longer there; reality is setting in where they’re having to do their own laundry, be sure they’re getting to class on time, and balancing a job with their social life and academic life.
In this pandemic year, it’s not just first-year students who find themselves struggling. And the reasons they are struggling are more diverse. In a recent article on Inside HigherEd, the author presents concerns about an increase in the number of college students struggling with mental health due to the social and economic impact of the pandemic, and the concerns students have about their education and career prospects.
As parents, sending our kids off to college is already an emotionally difficult thing to do, regardless of how excited we are for them to have this new experience. When they call home unhappy or frustrated, or asking to come home or drop out, it’s even more heart-wrenching. We want our kids to be happy and we don’t want them to struggle more than necessary.
So what can family members do to support college students in their adjustment to college life this year?
First, understand that it is completely normal to have ups and downs as students adjust to living in a new place.
No matter how much they knew where they were headed and knew what to expect, going through it can still be really challenging. It’s what’s called culture adjustment – something that we apply regularly to those traveling abroad, yet also relevant to any new environment one finds themselves in.
In short, we often have a pretty big high when we get to where we’re going. What follows is a downward trend as we try to adjust our habits and actions because of how different or difficult things are. The curve will move up and down as students adjust to the new environment and continue to be confronted with things that challenge their identity, ways of thinking, and ways of doing things.
A lot of times it can be really helpful just knowing that this curve is real and happens to all of us, whether heading off to college, traveling to a new country, or moving out on our own for our first job. Putting it out there and talking about this is a good first step.
Second, listen for how your student is feeling, not just what they are saying.
It’s not unusual for students to be feeling anxious, homesick, or lonely, especially in the age of pandemic protocols and concerns. Helping them identify their feelings and accept them as normal or common is really important. Being open and having a space to talk about their feelings without any judgment can go a long way in developing resiliency. Listen, reflect what you hear from them – whether it’s directly said or not – before you give them advice.
Third, help empower them to seek out resources without solving their problems for them.
College is often a middle ground for true independence. They aren’t at home where you can swoop in and fix things for them, but they also aren’t without any resources while they are at college. While every college is different, there are three important resources for students to know.
- First, their professors are there to help them succeed. They hold office hours and provide their contact information so students can get the help they need. Professors can also refer students to other resources on campus, like tutoring or time management help.
- Second, seek out the academic support center. This might be in the library, within individual schools on campus, or its own center. Wherever it is, they offer resources for subject tutoring, time management, goal setting, organizational skills, and self-care.
- Third, the counseling center on campus is there to help students who are struggling with any number of things. With high demand, it may take a while to get in to see a counselor, but they often provide resources and guidance to get back on track. Some centers offer ongoing programming that addresses common challenges students face.
Fourth, give them space.
Once you’ve listened and you’re both in agreement with what’s going on and how they’re feeling, and once you’ve given them advice, give them some space. In most cases, you are the safe place for them to vent and release some stress. Give them a chance to address what’s going on and move on from what’s troubling them. Set a day and time to check in on what they’ve done and the results of the actions they took, but don’t hover.
When to intervene.
College students are going to make mistakes, struggle, and even fail, and they need the space to do so. But as a parent, you need to go with your gut – you know your student best. If you feel concerned about your student’s safety, if you think they are engaging in risky behavior, or they are no longer taking an interest in things they always did, then you want to step in. Begin with expressing your concerns directly to your student. If you need additional guidance, reach out to the student life office on campus. While they may be limited in what they can tell you due to federal laws, they can provide resources to you and follow their process of well-checks on students.
Remember that transitioning to college in a normal year can be challenging enough. Having open conversations about moments in your life that were challenging to work through may open the door to your student talking about what’s going on with them. And you might find there are some great lessons learned that you can share with each other.
For more resources on mental health, including finding help:
Mental Health America – https://www.mhanational.org/