A new college student’s parents had not heard from her in several weeks. Finally a message arrived:
“Dear Mom and Dad,
Sorry I haven’t contacted you earlier, but I’ve been in the hospital while my broken leg mends. A fire swept through my dorm and I had no choice but to jump out the second floor window. Fortunately, some bushes broke my fall, but my leg hurt so badly I couldn’t walk.
It was early morning and I lay in the bushes freezing and undiscovered for several hours. Luckily, a Hell’s Angels guy saw me, picked me up and took me to the hospital on his Harley. Baby Huey has stayed by my side throughout this experience and we fell in love. I’ve decided not to return to college and will be moving into the bikers’ shack with him. Please don’t worry because we definitely plan to get married before the baby is born.
Your Loving Daughter”
The parents were stunned and tears of confusion and despair flowed.
I told this story for 20 years in speaking to the parents and families of new first-year and transfer students. I remember their shocked expressions as most were clearly baffled that I would share a horrifying tale that played into their worst fears.
Then, I said a second message arrived a few minutes later:
“Dear Mom and Dad,
I’m not in the hospital, there was no dorm fire, and my leg is not broken. I don’t know a Baby Huey, am not moving into a bikers’ shack nor dropping out of college. I’m neither pregnant nor getting married. However, I did flunk my History midterm exam and I wrote the first letter to help you keep that in perspective … ”
I once surveyed parents asking what they most wanted to learn about during our parent/family orientation program. Their consistent response was, “How we can understand and support our new college student.”
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There have been countless media articles detailing the increasing stress many college students are experiencing. A 2017 American College Health Association survey of 60,000 students found nearly 40% saying they felt so depressed that it was difficult for them to function; 61% said they had “felt overwhelming anxiety.”
Suicidal thinking among U.S. college students has more than doubled over less than a decade as new students struggle to manage their studies, as well as relationships with classmates, roommates, family, and friends back home. Students are terrified of failure and are even more fearful of failing to meet parents’ and family expectations.
Students who excel in high school find themselves struggling in more competitive college classes, leading to feelings of doubt and inadequacy. Many feel too proud or are ashamed to use campus support services — fearful of confirming harmful stereotypical beliefs about “students like me.” When students aren’t prepared to cope, they can become susceptible to depression and anxiety.
New students worry about choosing “the right major” leading to a “good job” after college. They struggle to balance school and work, seek to be more independent while managing time and maintaining healthy lifestyles — including diet, sleep and exercise.
Vicki Nelson, a longtime college educator and founder of College Parent Central, reminds parents that they cannot always “make things better.” Nonetheless, they play a critical role to encourage, challenge, and support students to develop the resilience and persistence essential to success in college, in work, and in life. Listening is critical.
Psychologist B. Janet Hibbs, co-author of “The Stressed Years of Their Lives,” advises parents to ask, “How are you coping? What happens when you have a setback? Who do you turn to? What kinds of things are you doing? Do you share? Do you seek help?”
Like Professor Nelson, Dr. Hibbs encourages parents to manage their own anxiety by not hyper-controlling their children. They need to transition from being caretakers to becoming coaches who offer suggestions and allow their children to take increased control of their lives
Some new college students are already receiving help for mental health issues. Parents can encourage these children to collaborate and communicate with campus counseling and health centers to develop a plan for utilizing resources to successfully manage the challenges of college life and for responding to occasional crises.
As parents and new students prepared to go their separate ways at the end of orientation, I encouraged parents to tell their kids: I love you, I will not judge you, and I will support you — in good times and in even more so in times of struggle.
Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: firstname.lastname@example.org