I sincerely hope your college student is already having an AMAZING experience, but if your “kidult” is struggling, please know they are NOT alone! This “Fall Frenzy” hits every year, especially for freshmen and transfer students. Realities of college are setting in, from suboptimal (or truly awful) midterm grades to social struggles. Some students party way too much, coping with anxiety by blackout drinking, using weed and/or other drugs. Other students hole up in their dorm rooms, escaping reality with video games. Along with these academic and social struggles, many students begin to question if they should change their major, their career or even change schools. Did you know between 30-80% of undergrads change their major AT LEAST once?
Parents, rest assured ALL of these struggles are incredibly common, regardless of what you may see on Facebook. How can you help?
FIRST, RECOGNIZE and STOP CATASTROPHIC THINKING!
“I bombed a quiz/test, so now I’m going to flunk the course, which means I will lose my scholarship, drop out of school, and NEVER become a doctor/lawyer/engineer/CEO!”
Or…”my boyfriend/girlfriend dumped me, and now no one will ever want me, and I will be single for the rest of my life!”
Whether you’re hearing these words from your student (or perhaps from YOUR anxious brain), recognize these catastrophic death-spirals are NOT REALITY. Virtually NOTHING that happens freshman year is a turn-ender. Grad schools, law schools, med schools, and real-life employers look for resilience and consistent improvement. If you are bombing one class, you’re simply bombing THAT class…have perspective.
Is it because they don’t know the test answers, regardless of how many hours they sat with the material? If so, jump straight to academic coaching. Many, MANY, super-bright high school students never learned how to study beyond memorization and regurgitation because that’s all they needed to ace high school. Students should start with their school’s academic success website, which typically offers practical tools like weekly time planners, specific study skills and truly helpful test-taking tips (like “brain dumps” and how multiple choice answers with absolutes like “never” are rarely correct.) Next step is to join or start a study group, which is extra-tough for introverts, but they can try reaching out through their class GroupMe or equivalent. Go through the prof’s power point and trade off asking each other, “what test question would Dr. X ask us from this slide?” Finally, if needed, advance to online or in-person, free or paid tutoring. AND (not “or”) go asap to talk with the professor during office hours. It’s late in the game, but still better than finals week to go in and let the professor know you CARE about the class, what you’re struggling with and where you are looking for help.
On the other hand, if they DO feel fully prepared, yet are getting super anxious and going blank during quizzes or exams, this is legitimate TEST ANXIETY! One in five college students experience palm-sweating, heart-racing, lip-numbing, hyperventilating, brain-blanking test anxiety. PLEASE see your doctor! We can teach you a few mind-calming techniques* AND potentially prescribe a non-addictive medication that helps by simply slowing down your heart rate. We can also prescribe a few Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) sessions to help you recognize and stop the trigger: your brain’s unconscious magnification of potential negative outcomes.
- *Structured breathing can often help you gain control of physical panic symptoms- start with a simple 4/10 pattern: breathe in for a slow count of 4, then breathe out for a prolonged count of 10. Repeat x 4.
- Caffeine is NOT your friend. Chugging coffee before exams makes your heart race faster, which signals your brain that you are anxious and perpetuates the panic response. LIMIT your caffeine intake! Ditto for nicotine. (That’s you, JUUL.)
If THEY honestly never wanted this pathway:
Take a deep breath. And another. Recognize that you might have unintentionally (or with the best intentions) forced your kid into a certain major- probably what you do for a living, or what you wish you would have done.
Understand that although their academic strengths may align beautifully with their major, sometimes they frankly couldn’t care less. This is tough! Parents see the realities of paying bills and worry that what they enjoy as a 20-year-old won’t be lucrative enough. However, before you nix their passion, encourage them to literally educate you on their realistic career opportunities. I’m here to tell you that when one of our kids decided to pursue a career in the animation, we ignorantly rolled our eyes with the thought that she’d be yet another starving artist, but ultimately, she could end up being the strongest breadwinner in the family! (Side note-turns out “animation” is used in virtually every industry these days, not just video games, cartoons and feature-length movies.)
Most college students do not find “their people” the first semester, and many at best co-exist with roommates. Many students make friends easily only to discover those peers have such different bandwidths for partying (or studying, eating, politics, faith, etc.) that it’s too stressful to stay friends. Lifetime connections can start senior year as easily as freshman year. Your kids may be surprised to learn your BFF from college, their “aunt”, didn’t enter your life till junior year- share those stories! Encourage your student to look at joining three unique organizations next semester to meet a variety of new people- consider one service org, one career or passion-based, and one pure fun (gaming, role-playing, food, sport, etc.)
INSOMNIA makes EVERYTHING WORSE:
“I haven’t slept in a week!” Insomnia is often the first physical sign of anxiety or depression, and exhaustion magnifies every negative emotion. Please have your student seek help before they are crumbling! Breaking the cycle is tough, but start here:
- Consistent sleep/wake times: whether sleep is 11pm-8am or 3am-noon, keep the SAME schedule to improve mood and brain function
- Use a sleep mask to ensure complete darkness
- Find a meditation or sleep app that you like (try at least 6 different ones!)
- If you’re hot, get a fan
- If you’re cold, get a blanket
- Try a weighted blanket (15-20 lbs)
- Exercise 30 minutes per day, ideally in the morning (walk/dance/bike/swim/whatever gets your heart pumping!)
Everyone knows their body and brain can’t function optimally with poor nutrition, but many college students exist on pizza and protein bars. Send care packages (or gift cards) that promote quick and easy nutrition- think fruit smoothies and salads, or gift baskets with apples and nuts.
LIMIT SOCIAL MEDIA:
LONELINESS can be a zillion times worse when you spend too many hours looking at social media. “Everyone else” is having an amazing life while we flounder. Set a daily time limit (5-10 minutes/session) for social media and literally schedule these times throughout the day…ANY time, really, as long as it’s not when you crawl into bed at night.
BOTTOM LINE: If your college student is struggling, please know they are NOT alone, and we have so much help available! Please reach out to your campus doctors, campus counseling center, or your primary care physician or therapist.
PS. Tragically, over 1000 college students die by suicide every year. Although I want to reassure parents that fall frustration is extremely common and the vast majority are truly not at crisis level, I am in NO way trying to make light of serious, potentially life-threatening anxiety and depression. I don’t want any family to write off significant concerns about their child. Especially if they are telling you they are having thoughts of self-harm, it’s time for professional intervention. You know your son/daughter better than anyone else- trust your instincts. I highly recommend The Campus Cure: A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students by Marcia Morris, MD.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255