How Parents Can Help College Students Manage Stress

Parents of new college students often wish they could peek inside their child’s world and help them from afar. They want to know what their child’s biggest stressors are, how they’re adjusting, and more. Well, as a college writing instructor, I can tell you when your child needs your support most — it’s during the last month of each semester.

As a professor, I see students sitting at desks biting their nails with tears bubbling over their eyelids. This generation doesn’t seem to attempt to mask their stress because it feels that overwhelming. Just last week, I had three students stay after class to get a little help on their final research paper (worth more points than any other assignment over the course of the semester).

As we sat together at a couple of desks smushed together, I could feel their stress. All three students burst into tears.

stressed student
As parents of college students, here is how you can help…a lot. (Twenty20 @NAO)

I did my best to bring out my inner Brene Brown by easing their worries and offering compassion, but after each interaction, I knew there was only so much I could do. You see, the reason students are exceedingly stressed during the last month of the semester is that all of their professors assign their course’s big papers, team projects, and grand presentations at the end. This is not ideal for young students; therefore, their stress and anxiety overflows until they finally break — apparently, in front of their instructors.

What students say about their parents

As parents, it turns out you can help a lot. I sat down with some of my students and also gave my classes an opportunity to give me ideas to tell parents as well. By a landslide, the leading answer was this: Back off.

I think it’s natural as parents to be interested and even worried as our children begin college. We don’t want them to fail, after all. But by adding that extra layer of pressure onto students, it often leaves them feeling too stressed — or worse, they may feel like their parents don’t believe in them. One of my students said, “When my parents badger me about college, I kind of feel like they’re waiting for me to fail.”

Failure is a learning experience

Parents may need to grapple with the idea that, indeed, your child may fail. I mean, that’s part of growing, isn’t it? When we allow our children to fail on their own, they grow on their own. Today, I stand in the front of the classroom as a college instructor with two graduate degrees, but I failed two, yes two, courses as an undergrad.

Of course, my parents were disappointed, but I grew from those failed classes by figuring out how to excel in school my own way. I learned how to study, organize my time, and yes, even earn high grades. But without those failures, I wonder if I would have grown to love learning and school on my own.

A simple act of kindness

My students also said that acts of service would feel nice during the last month of the semester. So, instead of applying more pressure on them, show them small or grand gestures. If your child lives on campus, you could send them a care package with an uplifting note simply telling them that you believe in them. Imagine what kind of impact a simple note could do to your child’s self-esteem during a time they need it most.

To add to the care package, think of what your child likes. One student said that she’d prefer small bags of healthy snacks like nuts and dried fruit to eat on the run. While another student said he’d prefer a gift card to the coffee shop located on campus or even some small bags of chips. These small gestures could mean the world to your child.

If you have the time to do a grand act of service, you could cook them their favorite meal if they are commuting to their college and still living at home. And if they live within driving distance, you could take a day trip to take them out to their favorite dinner spot. Just try not to overstay your welcome.

Another tip for parents is to practice what you’ve preached in raising your child by walking in their shoes. We often get so caught up in parenting that we forget to envision what our children are feeling. And as one student put it, “It’s especially hard for those of us who still don’t know what we want to do with our life. We feel that because we don’t have the next twenty years planned out, adults don’t take us seriously.”

So, try to remember that they’re still young. They will make mistakes — some small and easy to recover from, some large. But if we offer our children compassion, regardless of where they are in their educational journey, they’ll be more apt to not only excel but let you into their world.

I sat down with one student who had earned “A”s throughout the semester. I asked, “So, tell me, how are your parents helping you succeed during this first semester of college?” “Well,” he said. “For the most part, they’re just leaving me alone about school but still showing interest in me.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Instead of asking me about grades, tests, and papers, they ask me about what classes I’m enjoying and why. This way, we talk about the positive side of school, too. Not just the negative, serious stuff. And sometimes, it opens the window and then I do share the negative stuff — like maybe how my professor is too strict.”

As parents, it’s hard to loosen the figurative leash when they go off to college. But by the time your child gets there, you should let go completely. Sure, it’s okay to let your child know that you still have expectations of them — college can’t just be an expensive heyday but if you back off, they just might invite you in.

You Might Also Want to Read:

Why Stress and Anxiety in Teens Can Actually Be Healthy

About Angela Repke

Angela Anagnost-Repke is a writer and writing instructor dedicated to raising two empathetic children. She has been published in Good Housekeeping, Good Morning America, Parents, Romper, Literary Mama, the anthology “Red State Blues” by Belt Publishing, among others. She is currently at-work on the cross-generational memoir, Mothers Lie.

Read more posts by Angela

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