My Son Did Not Soar His First Semester of College, He Crashed

We spend our children’s entire lives envisioning our hopes and dreams for them. Most of us are very aware that their lives are not our “do-over,” and we let the child steer while keeping them on the rails, or at least trying to. We allow them to choose their sports, friends, clothes, and colleges, all while keeping a close watch to ensure rules are maintained, unwanted behaviors are kept at bay, and overall organization is kept in check. Sure, their rooms may not be as tidy as we’d like them, but there aren’t rat colonies forming upstairs under their beds.   

How parents can help college students improve executive function skills
Our doctor explained to my son about how depression can make it hard to be motivated to do simple tasks.

We prepare our teens for college but never know if they are ready

As much as we prepare them for college and the real world, there’s no way to tell if they’re ready until it’s show time. I sent my oldest off to college in August. We celebrated his graduation in style. We took a trip. We ordered all the dorm things, and on one hot August day, we left him three hours away with everything he needed to be successful.  

He’s completed two semesters and returning home for the summer this week.  

My son did not soar; he crashed

I’ll say this about this year…it was very difficult. He didn’t “soar” like we hoped he would. He crashed the first semester. Like totally hit, failed two out of five classes, and spent more time working on his fraternity life than on his homework. He missed classes and promised to do better but continued not to perform.

His Instagram was filled with new friends and fraternity date night photos, but he struggled. After the first semester, he was home for a few weeks. We regrouped, gave him a pep talk, and reminded him that he was an A and B student at a challenging high school. We knew he had the tools; he just had to reprioritize and figure out how to use them.  He was motivated and ready to show us he could do it.  

The second semester started strong; he went to class, did his work, and got good grades. He called me almost daily, and slowly, I noticed the doubt and negative self-talk creep back in. He talked less about classes and more about how he wasn’t sure school was for him. He couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t motivated to attend class and keep up with his work. Although he was always with friends, he felt lonely.  

He had the cutest girlfriend we could imagine, yet he thought no one knew his feelings. He was depressed. The more I pep talked and tried to build him up, the more negative his thoughts became. “This is supposed to be fun. This isn’t supposed to be this difficult. These classes aren’t that hard. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do this? Why am I so sad all the time?”  

I realized my son had reached his breaking point

The more he felt like a failure, the harder I tried to talk him up and help him manage his time. Until I couldn’t anymore. One day I just knew he was reaching his breaking point. He was too far away for me to help, but he wasn’t helping himself. So, we brought him home. I was dramatic and frantic, and I knew that bringing him home on a random Thursday three-quarters of the way into the second semester may jeopardize his grades; that couldn’t take much more strain. But I didn’t care. His mental health was more important.  

And it was the right decision. My mother’s intuition has never let me down. I knew I shouldn’t be checking my 19-year-old’s Life360 every day to be sure he was in class when he was supposed to be. I knew that wasn’t how this was supposed to work, but I didn’t know what else to do to help him, so I did what I could.  

Once he was home, we scheduled a visit with our general practitioner on Thursday. After a 30-minute check-up and blood work, we learned his blood pressure was elevated. He perfectly described a panic attack he had a few days prior and was diagnosed with major depressive disorder.  

My son’s doctor explained to him what people experience when they suffer from depression

The doctor explained to him that often when someone is experiencing depression, they honestly can’t muster the internal motivation to complete simple tasks. Their brain is so focused on getting through the day that they can’t see things for what they are. 

This diagnosis shouldn’t have come as a surprise to us. Both my husband and I have struggled with varying degrees of depression and anxiety, but we didn’t see it coming in the smart, athletic, handsome form of a 19-year-old college student who has their best years ahead.

That day, we started him on a combination of anti-depressants and talk therapy. And trust me, no 19-year-old boy wants to sit in his truck on a college campus for FaceTime appointments with a counselor to discuss his feelings. But he returned to school, and within about ten days, he reported feeling different.  

The change in my son has been gradual

The change has been gradual, but he is now more motivated to complete his schoolwork. His relationships are better, and he’s exercising regularly. He even told me last week that he initiated a meeting with each of his professors where he shared his difficulties this semester and the changes he’s made. He pretty much made a last-ditch effort to salvage any portion of his salvageable grades. We aren’t sure what next year will bring, but we’re encouraged that his mental state and outlook are improved. 

Here are a few things I took from my first-year experience as a college mom

  • Don’t compare your child’s experience to the experience of others. All students are different and on their timelines. Late bloomers still bloom.
  • Life’s a marathon, not a sprint. This wasn’t what we envisioned for year one, but he has by no means ruined his chances at anything.
  • PRIORITIZE mental health, yours, and that of your children. Talk about hard things.  Remind your kids they aren’t alone in their feelings even if no one else talks about the struggles. I’m SO thankful my son spoke to us about his struggles. 
  • Trust your gut. Your kids are still your kids, and sometimes you must jump in and help them take action.
  • Let go of your plans. They may not be your kids’ plans, and they often get derailed. It’s just better to roll with it sometimes. 
  • Be proud of your kids. My son struggled. His grades sucked, his priorities were out of order, and he wasted time and money, but he is still my favorite 19-year-old.  (Being proud doesn’t mean enabling. He’ll undoubtedly do some catching up and suffer natural consequences financially and academically).
  • Please don’t spend money on nice things for boys’ dorms; it all winds up in the trash at the end of the year anyway. 
  • If your kid’s first year at college isn’t what you envisioned, it will all be ok. A lousy year doesn’t mean learning didn’t take place. And sometimes life’s lessons are the best lessons of all. 

More Great Reading:

How to Find a Therapist for Your College Student


SAMHSA’s National Helpline

About Amanda Woods

Amanda Woods is mom is full time working mom with three teenagers, 19,16, and 13.  When she isn't juggling work and family, Mandy enjoys reading, gardening, exercising, and boating.  After facing a battle with childhood cancer with one of her children, she has also become an advocate raising funds for childhood cancer research while supporting other patients and families who face similar battles.

Read more posts by Amanda

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