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Talking About Their Generation: Part Three in a Series on Helping Freshman Cope with the Transition to College

Daniel Jay Sonkin, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in an independent practice in Sausalito, California. Since 1981, his work has focused ...Read More

If you missed the first parts of this series, you can find them here – Part One and Part Two.

When a College Crisis Occurs

When a crisis occurs at college, the parents are usually not the first to hear about it. The reason for this is two fold. First, the housing staff or school faculty is going to notice problems first, since they are the ones who are in regular contact with the student. Second, college faculty and staff are likely to approach the student, not the parent. Don’t forget, we are not in high school any more. Students are treated like adults, and therefore have privacy rights, and unless the situation is extreme, the parents are not likely to be contacted by the school without the student’s permission. Even grades don’t have to be shared with the parents if the student doesn’t choose to do so. This letting go is one of the most difficult things for parenting of college students to accept. This is a big difference from high school, where the parent knows everything. No more parent-teacher conferences and calls from the office when there is a problem.

Actually, parents are most likely to find out about a problem from the student him or herself. If the problem is serious and ongoing, it’s going to affect grades. Most students will sooner or later let their parents know whether or not they are passing their classes. Since most parents are paying for their student’s college, it is reasonable to expect that their child will keep them apprised of their academic progress. Grades are the most noticeable marker of problems. When they are unusually low or going down it is a good sign of when a problem is becoming or already is serious.

Learning Disabilities

Depending on their previous educational experiences, college may be the first time a student discovers he or she has a learning disability. According to the UCLA study (discussed in the first of this series), about 12% of all college students have a learning disability or medical condition that can potentially affect learning. These could include: ADHD; other learning disabilities (for example, dyslexia); and visual, hearing and speech problems. Fortunately, colleges are set up with resource centers to help students with disabilities. The challenge for some parents is how to help their student admit to needing services and go for help. This is not always easy. Students, whose disability was detected earlier in life, may already feel comfortable or used to receiving educational services. The key in helping those who might not be as comfortable is the parent first helping identify the problem that’s causing the learning impairment, and then to strategize with their student on how to get help. Once again, the better the parent is at managing their anxiety, the less reactive their student will be during the process.

Substance Abuse

Alcohol and drugs are the most common ways young adults deal with the stress of the transition to college, and beyond. Fortunately most college student’s self-correct if they find themselves over indulging. The lack of self-correcting is sign that the use is more of a problem. Students who are vulnerable to these difficulties are those who come from families with a history of depression, anxiety or substance abuse. These problems have both a genetic as well as environmental components. Genetic in that there may be a biological susceptibility to a disorder, such as alcoholism; but growing up with an alcoholic parent can have a profound impact on whether or not genetic factors actually activate the disorder. Even if there isn’t a history of family substance abuse, students who are vulnerable to depression and anxiety, may become overwhelmed by the stress of the college transition, and if they use the substance to regularly manage that stress, it can become a serious habit over time.

Anxiety and Depression

Just as grades are affected by learning disabilities and substance abuse, they are also affected by depression and anxiety. Students with the most severe reactions usually have had the symptoms in the past and/or have come from families with a history of depression and anxiety. The UCLA study on the transition to college (http://www.heri.ucla.edu/) found that about 1 in 20 girls and 1 in 40 boys experienced a psychological disorder, such as depression or anxiety, during their first year of college. It wasn’t clear from the study how many of these kids had a history of depression or anxiety, but transition to college can either trigger these reactions in someone who might have never experienced them before, or make them worse in kids who have had a history of anxiety or depression.

Typical signs of depression include: changes in sleep patterns (too much or too little); difficulty concentrating; feeling of hopelessness or helplessness; uncontrollable negative thoughts; changing in appetite (increased or decreased); irritability or short-tempered and thoughts of suicide or feelings that life is not worth living. Typical signs of anxiety include: constant worrying, tension or being on edge; being plagued by fears and worries; anticipating something bad will happen; avoiding activities that trigger anxiety; unexpected attacks of heart pounding panic and irritability. Increased irritability can be a sign of depression or anxiety. Generally a mental health professional can help you figure out which problem you are experiencing. It is not all that unusual for people to experience both depression and anxiety. It just depends on the person and their situation. As mentioned above, substance abuse is a common, way in which young people manage depression and anxiety. Over or under eating is another way of managing anxiety and depression. Both of these strategies are a problem for obvious reasons, one of which is they don’t make the problems go away, they only make them worse over time. The most important thing to remember is that there are concrete steps a person can take to begin to successfully manage their reactions to the college transition.

Managing Transition Stress

Students who have multiple ways of managing their emotional reactions to college are much less likely to resort to alcohol and drugs consistently. What are other ways students manage their feelings about the stress? Well talking about them is the most common. But there are also other ways, such as having a hobby or creative outlet, such as writing or art or building things. Also having a physical outlet, like swimming or running can be a great way of reducing emotional stress. Although young people who are involved in group sports may also get involved with substances, it has been proven to reduce the likelihood of using drugs, just because of it’s effect on reducing physical ability.

When problems get serious, self-correcting becomes more difficult and therefore solving the problem may require professional help. Most colleges are well aware of how difficult a transition that first year is, and provide various supportive services to students – from educational type groups to individual therapy. Making use of on-campus services is usually the first response of students. Many state universities and colleges have counseling centers on-campus staffed with graduate students in psychology, counseling and social work. These graduate students are typically under the supervision of licensed mental health professionals. What is good about these therapists is that they are younger (typically in the mid to late twenties), and therefore college freshman are more likely to identify with them. Also, it wasn’t so long ago these therapists-in-training were managing the transition to college themselves; so they understand what their young clients are experiencing. In some situations, a more experienced therapist may be needed, especially with severe drug and alcohol problems, eating disorders or extreme depression and anxiety. In these cases, the student may be referred to someone in the community, if there isn’t someone already on staff to handle the more serious cases.

Parents Responding to the Crisis

The three keys to successfully helping your student get through a college transition crisis are: 1) management of self-anxiety; 2) parents getting on the same page with one another; and 3) parents getting education on the problem. As I have already mentioned in the two previous parts of this series, the better the parent is able to manage their own anxiety, the more likely they will be able to talk with and problem-solve with their student. The more anxious the parent, the more likely their child will experience emotion contagion. And the greater the emotion contagion, the more likely a calm discussion will turn into a fight. Talking with each other, parents can help to calm each other down, explore various options and strategize on how to talk with their child about their problem.

It’s very important that parents agree on how to approach the problem before talking with their child. Inconsistent messages are extremely problematic because they add additional emotional stress on a child, who is already overwhelmed by the transition. Even couples, who ordinarily have good communication skills, may during particularly stressful times find themselves constantly arguing and unable to find agreement in a constructive way. If parents can’t talk with each other without arguing or are having trouble finding common ground, it may be time for them to see a mental health professional who will help them manage their emotional reactivity and help them find construction solutions they can both agree on so they can come up with an effective problem-solving approach with their child.

Finally, it is critical that parents educate themselves about the problem their child is experiencing. If its alcoholism or drug abuse, become an expert in substance abuse. If it’s depression or anxiety, become an expert in affective disorders. If it’s learning disabilities, become a learning disability expert. Mental Help Net is a terrific resource for the general public on all types of mental health problems. Of course, you are not going to become a real expert, but becoming knowledgeable in the area of concern will only help you in helping your child manage the stressful transition to college.

Keep Reading By Author Daniel Sonkin, Ph.D.
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