Mom’s Advice to Freshman Son: “Stop Pretending to Be Happy”

When Lucas went away for his first year of college I had a lot of friends and family asking, “How does Lucas like college?” Their faces always looked so hopeful, expecting good news.

Mom has advice for unhappy college freshman

I knew they wanted me to say, “Great!” But it wasn’t great. I was getting almost daily calls from my over achiever about how miserable he was. He was under the impression that this was going to be the greatest time of his life. He had worked hard at school, joined clubs, played sports, all with the expectation that he would get into a good college and have the best time ever!

He and his roommate would be best friends, no parents or little brothers around. College was going to be amazing. But it wasn’t. Had he really worked so hard for this? Had he really moved three thousand miles away? How could the college life he had envisioned be so different from what was?

Lucas had been in college for about a month when he started calling me. Now he had called me before, but the conversations were always, “I’ll be late for dinner. Can I go to Jonathan’s house?” It was information, it wasn’t conversation.

[More on advice for college freshmen from recent grads here.]

But now he was calling from college and he just wanted to talk. It was about the second or third conversation when he finally broke down, “Mom, I hate it here. I eat by myself. My roommate is never home. The people are different. It’s cold.”

“I thought you said you liked cold?” I answered. “It’s only October.”

“I changed my mind.” was his response. “What are you doing?” he wanted to know.

“Ah…watching Ben play t-ball”

“I wish I was there. I could help teach.”

“Lucas, I thought the reason you didn’t want to go to Berkeley was because you didn’t want to be invited to your brothers’ birthdays.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I can’t believe I could be in Berkeley right now.”

“Do you want to transfer to Berkeley?” I asked.

“No.” he said. “I’m just so lonely.”

[When college freshmen are homesick, here’s how parents can help.]

He needed me! He who was one of the most capable people I had ever known was asking for my help. I was heartbroken. I was inspired. I was necessary. I went right to work, collecting items for the perfect care packages. I called his grandparents, his aunts, his friends parents. “Lucas needs us.” I said. And they were there. And we were sending love and gifts and words of encouragement.

I developed a rapport with my son that autumn. We got in the habit of talking, sometimes he just wanted to listen. I would talk about what I was making for dinner, or who I was transporting to this or that event. But sometimes he would actually talk about his concerns.

“Mom, I hate having to pretend to be happy.”

My response, “Stop pretending to be happy. Be unhappy and then move on with your day. What if everyone at school is pretending to be happy? It’s no wonder you can’t find anyone who is real. You aren’t being true. Your unhappiness is just seeping out of you.”

I talked and talked and talked. I told Lucas that everyone has this period in their lives and that he’s just having it now. I told him that when I had spent a year in Australia I felt like I was on Mars, and I woke up every morning with zero expectations, because I was on Mars. I told him to try and do the same thing. “Don’t wake up and think it’s supposed to be a certain way, because you’re on Mars, and you just have to take things for what they are. Meet them as they are presented to you.”

I pulled out all the stops. I didn’t know if anything I was telling him would resonate, so I just kept trying different anecdotes. “College is not supposed to be an extension of high school. You are supposed to get out of your comfort zone. Most of your learning won’t come from the classroom. You go to the gym.” I told him. “If it doesn’t hurt you’re not getting stronger, and it is the same with going to college. The only way to grow and stretch and be better than you were is for it to hurt a little, or maybe a lot.”

It was a very tough semester, but it was a wonderful semester. He learned the value of his home and his family. He learned that annoying younger brothers brought their own amusements and joy. He was humbled, he was kind, he was appreciative, he was grateful. Sigh, lessons learned.


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trinia-dresdenTrina Dresden is the founder of GoToGirl, a blog that shares her experiences and continual lessons raising children in Marin County, California.  Being a local and the mother of four boys, aged 20, 17, 14 and 5, she has inadvertently become the Go To Girl in every new circle of friends.  Professionally an attorney and real estate agent, she has decided to combine her knowledge, and relay it through stories.  


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