I serve as an Academic Advisor at a large University, which puts me in the unique position of witnessing firsthand what most of you only speculate about higher education and the college experience today. Having had no fewer than twelve students (male and female) sob in my office in the first 3 weeks of last semester, I began to reflect on this chronic trend of students being unable to handle what many of us might consider “normal” stress levels.
I don’t have all the answers — just maybe a little useful advice based on the chair I sit in every day across from your college-aged kids and the benefit of a little distance from my own parenting missteps when my eldest went away to school.
Reasons why college was different for parents
I am here to tell you that, for various reasons, the college experience is NOT the same as when we went to school. It seems to me that it is a perfect storm of:
- many high schools engage in massive grade inflation and do not fully prepare our kids for what lies ahead (and so much of this is tied to both state and parental pressure put upon teachers and administrators alike)
- our generation’s over-involved, fix-it style of parenting
- social media and the strange dichotomy of these platforms are meant to connect us but often do just the opposite. Our kids have been raised in a technological era — a veritable arms race of land mines none of us ever experienced or anticipated
I went to a training on this generation, termed Gen Z, yet also depressingly termed “the loneliest generation.”
Record numbers of students are facing anxiety, depression, mental health issues, and suicidal ideations on campuses ill-equipped to deal with the sheer volume. Regardless of our opinions about how “real” this epidemic is, I am here to tell you that our opinions don’t matter — because they are real to OUR KIDS.
Academic advisor has these suggestions for parents
So what can you do for them while they are away to help them adjust in big and small ways, whether they are down the road or across the country, knowing that their needs will change from that first year to the last?
1. Your teens need to learn how to solve problems on their own.
Remember when you were away at school and had an issue — what did you do? You talked to roommates and friends. Or yourself. You figured it out. THEN you might have told your parents. Or not. Jumping on their school’s website and finding everything for them might be helpful in the short term. Still, I can tell you that it leads to total paralysis day-to-day, especially when they find an internship or a job and have not developed any professional competencies.
If they ask you for help, your answer should be, “Why don’t you ask your advisor or professor?” That is why we are here! You would not believe the random questions I get…. they make me laugh, and I am happy to get them because it means they aren’t asking you. Of course, as parents, we are still a resource for our kids while they are in college; we shouldn’t be THE resource. There needs to be a BALANCE in promoting both short-term and lifelong growth.
So when do you intervene on behalf of your child? You intervene if there is a major issue your child cannot solve on their own (and they have tried multiple avenues) or they are not getting the services to which they are entitled. Then, you might need to step in.
2. Do not text your child hourly. Or even daily.
Let them set the tone. And if you don’t hear from them, don’t panic! That’s generally a good thing! And it’s okay NOT to answer occasionally or immediately. Do not get roped into negativity and complaining via text, either. If they want to vent, have them call.
Sometimes, students are afraid to share their struggles with their parents for fear of worrying or disappointing them, so encouraging them to see an advisor, counselor, coach, or trusted friend might help them put things in perspective. If your children are struggling significantly, more frequent contact will be necessary, and make sure they are aware of the mental health services available on their campuses.
3. Please use the parent page of your child’s university, as it was intended, to get basic information.
Those pages can be an excellent informational resource at times. They promote a sense of community, but engaging in lengthy conversations with other parents complaining about your child’s institution and then passing that along to your child does nothing but make them more anxious. It may also make your student feel like you don’t trust them to navigate matters independently and that their privacy is being violated.
4. Encourage them to join clubs and professional societies.
It is far more likely that they will find “their people” there than in their dorm. Joining things is all part of the personal growth curve in college.
5. Tell them to treat college like a job with a 40+ hour work week.
Many of your kids didn’t have to work that hard in high school and did well. Not so now. They can enjoy themselves but must work hard to earn downtime.
6. If your children need academic accommodations, make sure they are registered.
Students who need it should be registered with whatever student services office exists on your campuses. That way, they get the services they need, and there is an official paper trail that will avoid any possible conflicts with professors.
7. Encourage your kids to engage with their professors.
Tell them to go to professors’ office hours and not be afraid to engage with them in class and in general. If your child has an issue with a class, tell them to go directly to the professor or their advisor if they feel uncomfortable. And resist the temptation to intervene and cc department heads/deans/college presidents, which happens more often than you know!
8. Tell them to get help.
Tell your kids to get help before they think they need it to avoid the unenviable downward spiral — to use all the resources (academic and otherwise) their universities offer.
9. Tell them to schedule their downtime.
Time management is the single biggest factor in a student’s success. Tell them to schedule their downtime just as they do their classes and allow themselves to completely check out of academics with whatever activities bring them joy and balance instead of stressing out about what they should be doing.
This prevents what I like to call “going down the rabbit hole of no return,” where they become so overwhelmed that they sleep and skip class because they don’t even know where to start to get caught up and engaged.
10. Tell them to be open.
Tell them to be open to new knowledge, new experiences, and new people, not to trust their first judgments of people/situations, and not to make assumptions. They must push themselves outside their comfort zone from time to time to avoid complacency. Being off balance is a good thing once in a while!
11. Hold them accountable.
If they mess up, hold them accountable and make them do the same. Cheating is a major issue on campuses for a reason. They can learn and grow from their missteps only if held accountable.
12. Normalize failure.
What I do daily normalizes what a student perceives as a failure. That is an important message for your child to receive. If they are really struggling, even failing — academically, socially, or any other way — they need to know that others are as well, that it is short-term, and that there are valuable things to be learned from those struggles. And don’t be afraid to share your own struggles with them!
Advisors can’t meet all your children’s needs, and we don’t have all the answers, but we know how and where to get those answers to direct them to the right resources. On particularly challenging days, I remind myself of what I would want my child’s experience to be walking into an advisor’s office or anywhere on their campuses.
“I am here. You have my undivided attention. What do you need?” Each of your children deserves to have that experience.
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