College students face many challenges: peer pressure, difficult coursework, and for most, the responsibilities of living on their own for the first time. College students often struggle with the academic, extracurricular, and social expectations that come with the newfound freedom. Young adults can often buckle under the pressure, however, parents can help guide them toward a safe and rewarding college experience and connect them with additional assistance, if needed. There are several steps parents can take to make this transition easier:
1. Speak with their student about the risks of drugs and alcohol. New freedoms and opportunities at college can bring peer pressure and the desire to achieve. Eagerness to fit in with a new crowd can cloud students’ judgment, making them susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse. Others misuse Adderall and other amphetamines — drugs typically prescribed to treat ADHD — in order to enhance their concentration and academic performance. The potentially harmful effects of these drugs include memory loss, hallucinations, and even seizures.
Binge drinking in college can have other dangerous outcomes. Alcohol consumption raises students’ risk of injury, addiction, sexual assault, and even death. More than 1,500 students die each year due to excessive drinking, while alcohol has factored into an estimated 97,000 cases of sexual assault every year, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. As a result, parents should learn to recognize some of the telltale signs of substance abuse, including changes in physical appearance, decreased motivation, secrecy, irritability, and a loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed. By regularly checking in with their young adults, parents may be able to better understand and confront risk-taking behaviors before they spiral out of control.
“A young person’s first year of college sets the stage for their success moving forward, not just academically but in every aspect of their life. This is the time for them to learn how to form authentic connections with their peers and establish healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with conflict,” says Seon Kim, assistant clinical director at Mountainside treatment center in Canaan. “It’s critical for parents to intervene early on if they suspect that their young adults are using substances or making other decisions that could endanger their health.” Parents can reach out to a treatment facility, if they suspect their son or daughter needs assistance.
2. Listen, and have empathy. College students require their independence as well as the space to make their own decisions, but sometimes, they also require a sympathetic ear. College students, particularly incoming freshman, should feel safe voicing their apprehensions without judgment. Parents play an important role in keeping their young adults grounded and can continue to shape their development even while they are away from home. To better understand their young adults’ influences and behavior, parents can schedule regular calls and ask open-ended questions about their friends, professors, and coursework. By showing compassion and interest, parents can proactively catch signs of declining mental health in their sons and daughters while helping them express themselves constructively.
3. Understand the warning signs of poor mental health. Sometimes, parents can misinterpret their child’s complaints or mood swings as attention seeking when these behaviors could actually constitute an underlying mental health issue. In 2017, the National Institute of Mental Health found that young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 are most likely to suffer from a mental health disorder, making college students an especially vulnerable group. Therefore, parents need to be active listeners in their young adults’ lives and resist any urge to dismiss their concerns. They should keep an eye out for the common red flags of a mental health disorder, including excessive worrying or low mood, a tendency to isolate from others, changes in appetite or sleep patterns, substance use, or suicidal ideation. By observing these changes in behavior, parents can become better positioned to address them and provide support when needed.
4. Become familiarized with on-campus resources. Parents who suspect that their sons and daughters are struggling should become familiar with support services that may be available on campus. Parents can boost students’ chances of success by encouraging them to meet with professors, tutors, and resident assistants as well as their college’s career center. Many schools also have a health center, where counselors can help students manage symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other behavioral health issues. If substance abuse is suspected, parents can contact local treatment centers, as many provide recovery resources tailored toward young adults.
Parents can provide a pivotal source of guidance and reassurance during college years. By keeping the lines of communication open, they can make sure their son or daughter remains safe and supported.