Former Stanford Academic Coach: How to Help an Overwhelmed Student

The sound of the overwhelmed college student takes many forms. Sometimes it’s a high-pitched dog whistle noise that only we, parents, can hear through their “it’s all good” toss-offs.

Sometimes it’s a more throaty sobbing through which their words are barely discernible. Sometimes it’s total silence. Whatever sound comes through, your child’s distress creates yet another parenting puzzle: what do I do for my overwhelmed student?

What parents can do when their student is overwhelmed

First, we must allow that feeling overwhelmed in college is a normal part of the experience. College is supposed to stretch us and challenge us. When we build muscle, we “feel the burn,” but don’t assume we’ve injured ourselves if it’s within a certain range.

Similarly, when we stretch ourselves emotionally and intellectually, as happens in college, we feel the burn. But because college is a Whole New Context, it’s difficult to gauge what the range of “burn” should be.

The distress or disappointment a high school student experiences getting a less-than-stellar grade is the same distress in college, but the Whole New Context shakes everything up. The college student is finding entirely new points of reference, and all of the lived experiences that helped them know who they were and what feels normal are made unrecognizable by the Whole New Context of college. You can see how feeling overwhelmed might ensue.

No matter your student’s sounds, the moment their distress registers in our guts, we are mobilized. We want to call their academic advisor and alert the authorities. We become Shirley MacLaine trying to get morphine for our ailing Debra Winger in the 1983 classic Terms of Endearment. But soon after we become mobilized, good sense kicks in, and we hold back on rushing to save them or fix the problem, and if we’re savvy, we just listen and breathe, hear them, and reassure them.

We bring all our love and faith in them into our hearts. And we remember this is all part of growing up for them and letting go of us. And often, if we wait for it, they allow a small opening into which we can gently offer a suggestion or two.

“Stanford, I Screwed Up”

“Stanford, I Screwed Up!” was an annual event commemorating and celebrating the ‘epic failures’ in our lives. 

After coaching thousands of students at Stanford University from 2001 to 2020, I can safely say there are (at least) three things parents can do when their student is overwhelmed.

Once their tears and the full measure of anxiety have been vented, and they’ve said they’d like some help, here are the three things you can tell them. And if they don’t generally think your ideas are worth much because they’re coming from you, tell them it was in an article written by an expert on the subject.

What you can do for your overwhelmed student

1. Teach them to use a calendar.

  •  Show them this video (above) on how to begin setting up their calendar.
  • Remind them that the course syllabus likely has information on readings, homework, and when big projects will be due. Those dates (and times) should be written into the calendar for the entire semester.
  • DUE dates are good but DO dates are essential. Since most college learning happens outside of class, they should be putting in three-six hours of additional time per class, per week, for things like reviewing notes, doing homework, preparing for exams, etc. Those chunks of time should be written into the calendar just like classes, advising appointments, rehearsals, and athletic practice are.

2. Tell them they need to read strategically.

  • Nobody gets all the reading done in college. The goal is to get something meaningful from it, for some students, that means reading a small portion in great depth and skimming the rest.
  • Everybody reads things a second and third time. Complex ideas take time and re-reading to make sense of. Talking things over with friends also helps. Reading groups are a great way to combine reading and connecting with people.
  • When unsure what to focus on in the text, ask them what the course’s big ideas are and how the reading will speak to those ideas. Their job is to ask some questions about the material (i.e., “what does this book have to do with the article we talked about in class?”) and find answers through reading.

3. Remind them that the enemy of better is best. 

  • Many students feel overwhelmed because they’re trying to do everything and be perfect.
  • A’s get angina. C’s get degrees. Maybe don’t aim for a “C,” but certainly don’t decide that “C” stands for Catastrophe.

Even if we have tried to instill a value of self-care and good sense in them, they still hit the college buffet and load their plates up with classes, clubs, sports, Greek life, social outings, and every activity they’ve ever wanted to try but didn’t want you to know about. Overwhelmedness ensues.

Our students are acutely aware of the expectations, spoken or implied, that the world has of them. Just like our parents placed expectations on us, and their parents had expectations of them, we, as parents and a whole society, do the same to our kids.

So even though we have tried to mitigate or balance those pressures, our kids are trying to meet the expectations. Some have even come to believe that parental and societal expectations are their own, and they don’t know the difference between what they want and what everyone else wants.

So right after you reassure them that feeling overwhelmed is normal and that you love and believe in them no matter what, and while you’re quieting your impulse to hook up the morphine drip to ease their pain, now is the time to simply listen for the invitation to introduce a few strategies for success.

You Might Also Want to Read:

How to Help Your Homesick Freshman

About Adina Glickman

Adina Glickman ran Stanford University’s Learning Strategies Programs for 15 years. She is the founding director of the Stanford Resilience Project and co-founder of The Academic Resilience Consortium. She maintains a private coaching practice for parents, students, and young professionals and trains other coaches who work with college students. You can follow her on Twitter.

Read more posts by Adina

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