Best Years of Your Life?

College years are unquestionably awesome, often dubbed “the best years of your life”. However, as you recover from high school grad parties and start dorm room preparation, consider adding another topic to the “last-summer- gotta-cram-in-every-bit-of-parental-advice” talks: not EVERY day in college is quite so awesome. Shouldn’t it be obvious to our kids that they should expect ups and downs? Possibly not…

In our home, our kids grew up hearing stories time and time again about fun-filled Notre Dame or Texas Aggie football weekends, road trips, dorm parties, and cherished school traditions. Our dearest college friends are called “Aunt” and “Uncle” because despite distance, we feel like family. Pictures on the wall celebrate weddings that include our college tribes, and even our own wedding groom’s cake sported a college mascot (ND Leprechaun). Virtually everything we have ever discussed about university life has been not only good, but fantastic. Sharing our favorite memories helps us be excited for our kids and the memories THEY will make, which eases the transition away from home for both of us.

BUT…everyone can also recall some extremely tough days in college. The first bad grade. The awful breakup. Watching friends get accepted into a club while we were passed over. Getting mono. Feeling stupid. Hating the major we picked. Even some football games (gasp!) where we stood in the pouring, cold rain for hours and our team was dramatically outscored (which still COULD be fun, but sometimes led to a group pout.) When your expectation for college is 100% framed by the pressure that these are the BEST years of your life, reality regularly falls short of expectations. Add in the social media pressures of seeing “EVERYONE” else from your high school clearly having NONSTOP FUN at their schools, and home sickness gets multiplied exponentially. As a college campus physician, I see many students coming in with clinical depression, honestly convinced they are the ONLY one from their old high school friend group that is struggling, and not wanting to tell their parents because (1) they don’t want to disappoint them and (2) they feel guilty NOT loving school because of the huge expense.

Setting realistic expectations and opening the door for that text or phone call on a down day in the future can really help. While many parents have been comfortable sharing stories about drinking too much, or other mind-or-hormonally-altered poor choices, fewer parents talk about bouts of anxiety, depression or self-doubt. Sprinkle at least a few of these stories into your dialogue this LAST SUMMER HOME, and you will be helping your son or daughter make college the BEST YEARS of his/her life SO FAR. Additionally, let me recommend a great new resource written by a colleague, Marcia Morris, MD, who is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist practicing on a busy college campus- The Campus Cure: A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students.

Finally, consider asking your daughter (or son, though girls are often more receptive to this) to start a completely private gratitude instagram. Yes, COMPLETELY private is the key, so only she, plus/minus your immediate family can see it. If it is public, the insta posts become all about “likes”- this is ONLY for her. Challenge her to post daily, writing at least one thing she is grateful for that day-maybe a tasty meal, making a new friend, a fall leaf, an interesting lecture, a freebie gift at the student center. Later, on the rough days, she will have a positivity diary of her year to look back on and boost her spirits, not to mention a lovely visual story of her college years. Gratitude journals have been repeatedly shown to elevate mood and create a positive cycle. Instagram is simply an easy vehicle to the same end.

BOTTOM LINE: College years should be the best years of your child’s life…so far…but will be sprinkled with down days and disappointments along the way. Help set realistic expectations and open the door for your son or daughter to ask for support when they hit those universal speed bumps.

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