WebMD Feature from The Jed Foundation (JED).
College is the first time most young people will live away from home. This experience is exciting, maturing, educational, and maybe even fun. It’s also a big step and almost inevitably one that will cause anxiety. But it’s important to recognize that students going off to college aren’t the only ones who might be anxious.
Parents are used to orchestrating their children’s lives -- or at the very least, helping their kids navigate daily challenges. The shift to having a child living away from home and making their own decisions about activities and health care can be difficult.
You might wonder how they’ll ever remember to eat breakfast, get to class, or follow up on assignments. With luck, you’ve been helping them become more independent and take responsibility for managing their things.
If your child has health or mental health problems that might worsen while they’re away, the stakes get even higher.
How do you plan for and manage this transition? How do you know when your child might need you to intervene and lend some help or support?
If they haven’t yet started college, talk about the importance of taking responsibility for their health and the need to let you know if any problems should emerge.
Make sure your child knows how their health insurance coverage works. Get familiar with the student support resources at their school, including health and counseling services. If they’ve had health or mental health problems in the past and might require ongoing management and treatment, establish a transition plan. Talk to their current health care providers and the relevant offices and clinicians at their school. These include health, counseling, disabilities services, and residential life.
Once your child is at college, how will you know if they’re having problems?
Keep in touch. In this age of texting, Facebook and Instagram, it’s easy to feel like you’re constantly connected. But it will help to actually speak to your child from time to time. You can often discern things from a conversation, like tone of voice or emotions, that don’t always come through in a text message or email.
If you’re worried, ask. Sometimes parents are afraid to intrude on their child’s privacy. This is certainly a commendable and sensible approach in general. But if something bothers you, mention it. Use specific details and examples: “You sounded really tired yesterday. Are you getting enough sleep?” Most young people are reassured when their parent takes a concerned interest in their well-being. Just don’t overdo it.
Trust your gut. You know your child better than anyone else. If you feel something isn’t right, take it seriously and reach out to them.
Look/listen for change. Again, you know your child best. Behavior changes can signal emotional health issues. Poor sleep or appetite, a change in self-care (not showering, dressing in markedly different ways), or a difference in speech (faster, slower, change in quality) or in behavior may suggest a problem. If you notice things like these, ask your child about it.
Use campus support services. If you’re still uneasy after speaking to your child, talk to professionals on campus. Remember that while colleges can’t always share details with you about your child (except in a medical emergency), they can listen to a concerned family member. They should work with you to find a way to check in with your child and get back to you with some information. You can call the dean of students or the vice president of student affairs (schools use these terms interchangeably) or the campus counseling service if you’re concerned. If there’s a problem, they can help you and your child to establish a plan.
Report emergencies right away. If your child talks about violence or self-harm or sounds markedly different than usual (disorganized or incoherent speech), let the counseling service, campus security or campus student at risk team know right away.
How much is too much? If you’re constantly worried about your child but campus professionals have reassured you that everything is OK, the problem could be you. Some parents have trouble with separation. Talk to a trusted friend or mental health professional who can help you sort things out. It can help to get a second opinion.
Stress Check: Signs of a Problem
Excess stress can sneak up on your child over time. They may not notice it until they begin to experience its physical or emotional effects. Too much stress can lead to unhealthy and potentially serious physical and emotional problems. If any of these warning signs last for a number of weeks or interfere with your child’s ability to function, it’s important that they reach out for help:
- Changes in sleep patterns (taking longer to fall asleep, waking up tired, not feeling well rested)
- Changes in eating patterns
- Frequent (or more frequent) headaches
- More short-tempered than usual
- Recurring colds and minor illnesses
- Frequent muscle aches and/or tightness
- More disorganized than usual
- Increased trouble completing tasks
- A greater sense of ongoing time pressure
- Increased frustration and anger
If you think your child is experiencing higher than typical levels of stress, urge them to contact the school’s mental health or counseling center.