How to Help Your Teen Through the Four Most Stressful Moments of Freshman Year

The timing of stressors and student needs vary as much as students themselves. However, I’ve learned in my 15-plus years working in higher education that there are some points throughout the academic year that stand out as particularly troublesome for first-year students. Learn here about these hotspots, so you can be prepared to offer support and guidance.

About a quarter way into their first semester

What happens then? The first big round of tests and papers! And they often happen in a cluster, because professors follow similar routines. It’s not uncommon for a student to have three or four tests, across three or four courses, in one week. Unlike in some high schools, professors do not coordinate with each other to avoid overloading students in any given week.

Why is this stressful? It’s not just because there’s a lot going on. It’s because there are a lot of things due that actually take a few weeks’ preparation (which didn’t happen!). What does this look like in the moment? Panic. What does it look like after? Poorer grades than expected.

How parents can help during the most stressful times of freshman year
Mindmo/ Shutterstock

Time management skills are essential to avoiding this hotspot. Students can review accumulating notes each week. They can break papers down into steps, schedule these steps, and work on them over time. It’s just about getting out of the mindset that you only work on something a few days (at best) before it’s due. NOW…If it is your student’s very first semester, give them some grace. Sometimes we don’t really believe all the time management hype until we live it. Until we screw up. Be supportive, encourage them to do the best they can with the time they have now, and then they can start using those time management strategies as soon as they are through the current storm.

Most colleges and universities have an office with at least one staff member who provides guidance and instruction on managing the college workload. Tell your student to find that person and see them as soon as possible. If your student isn’t sure where to get this type of help, they should ask their academic advisor or a trusted professor.

Right before final exams

Final exam week can be pretty daunting for its own obvious reasons, but the real hotspot is right before finals. Not only is there studying to be done, but a lot of classes have major projects, papers, and tests due in the last few days before the first final exam hits. On top of that, students are operating under the effects of weeks of poor sleeping and eating habits. Basically, there are a lot of rundown, sick, and tired students trying to manage the most work-intensive point of the semester.

So, what’s a parent to do when their student sends a frantic text, or makes a tear-filled phone call, about how stressed they are near the end of the semester? Again, give some grace, remind them of the hard work they’ve put in, and help them write down a plan for tackling their seemingly overwhelming to-do list. Just getting it down on paper can alleviate a great deal of the stress.

Many colleges and universities have special events at the end of the semester to help ease the emotional toll students are experiencing. Help your student seek out these opportunities. I’ve seen all kinds of things on campus from massage chairs to tutoring to play time with therapy dogs!

After winter break

Your student has completed their first semester, they’ve had a great winter break (except they didn’t spend enough time with you, of course!), but now seem sullen or emotional about going back to school. What’s the deal?

In my experience, this one is often about going back out into the cold world after enjoying the relative emotional and physical comfort of home. The excitement of starting their very first semester doesn’t follow them into January. Instead, they have fresh feelings of home and comfort. They’ve walked back into that cocoon for a few weeks, and now must walk out again. Parents, you aren’t the only one with feelings about that! Students tend to quickly get back in the game, though. They reconnect with friends and then go about the business of being a student.

An added wrinkle for some may be feelings of trepidation about whether they are in the right place or if they are in the right major and career path. It’s normal to have doubts at this point. My advice is to remember a lesson you taught them when they were little…be a good listener. Don’t try to give too much advice, which will just end up feeling like pressure.

If you give any advice, steer them toward the university’s counseling center and career center to talk through everything and learn more about options. Counseling services on college campuses specialize in dealing with issues commonly experienced by students. Most students go to three to four sessions to get back on more solid footing. Career services offices can help students learn more about what can be done with their major. They can also help students explore their interests and related majors.

After spring break

This can look a lot like that pre-finals week we already talked about…tired students who are not prepared for what’s to come. Students may spend spring break relaxing, or they may spend it partying, but they rarely spend it studying. And that’s okay! Just know that many professors assign major papers and tests to take place the week after spring break. Of all the nerve, huh?! Seriously, though, spring break can put a student in turmoil if they aren’t planning ahead.

The best way to encourage your students for this instance is to get them thinking about how to be proactive. Can they carve out a couple hours to work on a paper or study for a test? Better yet, can they work a little extra the week before spring break to be prepared for what’s due after? It’s easy to overlook what’s coming when the anticipation of spring break glows so brightly, so a gentle reminder to think about that can be so helpful to your student!

Pitfalls will happen during your student’s first year, but with a little bit of insight into some common hotspots you can be the encourager they just might need!

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Lori Smith is a wife, mom, and higher education professional who lives in the beautiful state of Tennessee.  She and her husband, Scott, write their own blog, Kid to College, where they share insights about raising college-ready kids.  She may also be found on Twitter

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