What’s Really Going On With Those Phone Calls From Your Overwhelmed College Student

“I have to take this call. It’s my son!” I excitedly say to whomever is beside me when my 19-year-old son calls from college. The calls home aren’t that frequent as he is a typical boy who doesn’t spend a lot of time on the phone. He’s also busy trying to stay afloat in a challenging major. But, my reactions remain consistent when I see he is calling. I smile, stop whatever I’m doing and answer with enthusiasm, “Hey, sweetie!”

Just as I am consistently eager and cheerful to answer his calls, his subsequent mood is, unfortunately, consistent, as well. “Mom, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. Chem lab is impossible. You don’t understand how hard I’m working. So many people are failing.”

Or maybe I get, “Mom, I have my physics final today and I didn’t sleep all night and I can’t eat anything and I don’t feel good.” Or I’m reminded of something that I mishandled: “Mom, you never took me for a new retainer and now my teeth shifted and my jaw is messed up and I’m gonna need surgery.” Ahhhhh! How quickly my vision of hearing my happy boy’s voice on the other line is shattered, leaving me 1000 miles away feeling worried and concerned.

Overwhelmed teen
It’s hard to hear stress in your teen’s voice during phone calls. (@gigibunny via Twenty20)

It’s challenging for so many parents when our kids head off to college. We place a great value on those phone calls, and it feels even more significant to receive a call from the child who rarely checks in with us. Parents sleep better or smile more if we believe our child is doing well … if we feel that our child is happy.

Yet, what happens when we get those high-strung, stressed-out-sounding calls? How many of us often hang up with a sense of doom? How many of us lose sleep, worry and over-analyze the often-brief conversations?

It is reminiscent of the feelings that many of us experienced years ago when dropping our toddler off at preschool. If our little one went into the classroom screaming or crying, then we likely drove away with tears in our own eyes envisioning our child being miserable all day. Yet we know what is most often the case: We walk away; the toddler stops crying, grabs a new toy, sees a friend and has a great day. Yet sometimes for hours, we hold on to that drop-off moment that we witnessed.

We picture our child sad and uncomfortable. But, we know better. We know that often that behavior is reserved just for our eyes to see, for our ears to hear and for our hearts to feel. But, we also know that emotions can be stirred up, can erupt and then, most often, will fade away. That is the case with toddlers. It is the case with our teenagers. It is the case for our college-aged kids. We all emote, and we all often then let it go and move forward.

Last night, my son called and released his usual concerns, worries, doubts and stress. “I have to pass this class. I’m not taking Differential Equations again. This is so hard. I haven’t slept. All I do is study. My friends are all out hiking. I haven’t gone out for weeks.” I tried to encourage him to remain confident. I suggested a brief meditation. And I told him to just do the best that he could do. But then, as he spewed about more stress, I started to doubt everything.

I felt a brief sense of panic. Isn’t college supposed to be fun, too? Why is my son not enjoying any light, silly, good times? Finally, I couldn’t listen anymore. “If you are that miserable and not having any fun at all, then maybe you need to make a change,” I adamantly proclaimed.

“Maybe engineering is not the right path. It’s not worth putting your health and well-being at risk.” I then added, “You need to have fun once in a while.”

And then, there it was. His response took me back to those days driving home from pre-school drop-off. “What? Of course I’m having fun, Mom. I love it here.” My heart was racing. What did he say? He is actually having fun? He continued: “I’m not going to call you and tell you about all of the fun I’m having. I don’t call you when I’m racing out to a concert. I’m going to call you when I’m stressed. I call you when I need you, Mom.”

That’s what we must remember. We often hang up the phone or pull away from the curb and hang on to what was happening in that previous moment. But, that moment has passed, and that moment was often reserved just for us … so we could help them let go of it.

We cannot always be a part of our children’s “now,” but we can simply hope that the next moments will be filled with joy and challenge and learning and, yes, even fun! Hope for that. Believe in that. Be grateful that they look to us to be their punching bag, their release, their safe ear. And know that they don’t always (or EVER in my case) need to share the happy moments with us. Yet we must remember, hope and believe that they are often happening.

You May Also Enjoy Reading:

7 Things You and Your New College Student Need To Know Before They Leave

I Left My Son With a Mattress on the Floor and a Duffle Bag of Clothes 

Amy Lee Kite is a Chicago-based blogger, poet, social media strategist and children’s book author who loves the written word in all of its many forms. When she is not busy being a mom to her three children or taking care of her three rescue dogs, she is most often writing. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram. Learn more about Amy here: www.amyleekite.com

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