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How parents can support their teenagers starting college in uncertain times

How do you reassure and prepare for college during this time of crisis?  I have been treating high school and college students for over 30 years and this is a season like no other. Previously, parents were often ambivalent; melancholy about their children growing up and moving away but happy for the privilege of college education. They wonder, how will my child do on their own? Teenagers are often excited, but anxious about social adjustment and new academic demands. Now, in this time of pandemic, financial crisis, and urgency about racial justice, all those typical emotions are overshadowed by a deep uncertainty about the future. Parents are emotionally exhausted and trying to cope with their own fears; this makes the college goodbye talk much more complicated. There is no clear path for the first year or even the first few months of college. Will there be on-campus, in-person classes, distance learning or a hybrid? Many students will not even be leaving in the fall, due to health or financial concerns, or universities’ new schedules with staggered start times. Or will parents say goodbye to their child, only to have colleges close a few months later?

Students will need more support this year. Symptoms of anxiety and depression, already extremely prevalent among teenagers, have risen significantly during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, the rate of major depressive disorder in teens was 13% overall. A recent sample of college-age people revealed that now over 40% were experiencing depression or anxiety. We need to be concerned about all our teenagers, especially those who were suffering from a psychological disorder before the pandemic.

So, how to proceed?  Here are some things it’s important for parents to do.

First, provide validation and positive framing. Parents can confirm their children’s feelings that this is a challenging time but still frame the situation positively. The message to a child should be, “We believe that you are ready. Yes, the situation is uncertain. There may well be disappointments or sudden changes and we will all need to be flexible, but we have confidence in you and will still be here for you.” It’s important for parents to approach the situation with an openness and a mindset toward growth. Parents should help teenagers not to fear failure as it is can be part of the ongoing educational process. This type of framing can and increase confidence.

Parents should also emphasize distress tolerance. Many parents, in the hopes of protecting children from pain, do not help them develop distress tolerance and rush to reassure them or solve their problems. Teenagers are often aware of their strengths and weaknesses, but during a stressful time like this one, they may overlook the coping skills that served them well in the past. Parents should remind their children that negative emotions do not need to be avoided or feared; that they experienced sadness or fear in their lives before and may well again, but they cope and grow. If teens do not avoid negative emotions, they will experience them and see that feelings are temporary. Similarly, parents need to accept that you’re their children will have some bad days but parent do not need to “fix” the situation.

Parents must also clarify that the college experience fosters the joy of engagement. I see engagement—with a professor, other students, a course of study or an extracurricular activity—as key to a positive college experience. Parents can help children her appreciate that college, even though it may be different from what they imagined, can be an exciting time to explore interests. Engagement is not strictly academic. For LGBTQI teens, college may offer greater acceptance and opportunity. Minority and first generation students, as well as those with learning differences, can find student groups and programs that may help address their needs.

Parents should identify the ways to obtain psychological help.  There are counseling centers on most campuses and psychotherapy is viewed by most people as not only acceptable but common and normal. Don’t let shame get in the way. Deans and chaplains can provide guidance and also facilitate referrals and many centers offer online scheduling. Parents with children who have  been treated for a psychological problem should plan ahead for ongoing.

Finally, parents should use their expertise as parents to identify additional specific areas of concern. Parents know their own children better than anyone else and after years of living together, they can probably enumerate what types of issues worry them, whether social anxiety, academic limitations, sex, body image, substance use and many other issues. Important for parents to let this information guide their conversations. Their teenagers will feel validated and supported.

Featured Image Credit: Image by Freepik

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