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A Mental Health Game Plan for College Students and Families

Rob Danzman, MS, NCC, LCMHC

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Move-in day is here, and along with it the reminder that our kids eventually grow up and leave home.

Though a few will breeze through the college years, many will struggle at some point along the way. Below I share suggestions on how to parent college students whether they’re experiencing challenges or just anxious about the big transition.


Encourage your first-year student to fight the urge to slide casually into college life. It’s essential to set academic and personal expectations — start with more structure and back off as the semester proceeds (if it’s going well).

And talk about calendars. Calendars are a foundation for success and counteract a lot of mental health symptoms. Missing an advisor meeting, forgetting about a counseling session, or completely blanking on a big assignment are good ways to have a bad semester.

The start of fall semester is also a great time to introduce the concept of incrementalism. I’ve worked with students with a 4.0 high school GPA coming into freshman year who spun out by November. The over-stimulation and lack of restraint became a disaster. Check in early and often at the beginning with a focus on what’s measurable. Small wins add up to big wins.


Have your student schedule an initial appointment with the college counseling center (often referred to as Counseling and Psychological Services or CAPS) before or immediately after they get to campus. Even if they have no intention of going regularly, it helps to know where the center is and have that personal connection. Students are more likely to use CAPS if they’ve been before.

If your student needs ongoing counseling, CAPS may not be enough. I recommend that you help your student find a community-based clinician before the October rush. For students who’ve been working with a therapist at home and want to meet with someone at school, ensure the therapists coordinate to provide a smooth hand-off.

Don’t forget to have your student sign a release of information. You don’t need details from each session but a general sense of how things are trending.

Family Communication

Agree on how regularly you’ll talk. It’s incredible how loving, engaged kids disappear once they get to school. I’ve also worked with students who called home too much. Having a general idea of when you will catch up frees kids from feeling pressured to respond to every text and gives parents a sense of relief.

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security as the semester cranks up and things quiet down. Situations that blow up in December result from the smallest dark clouds forming on the horizon in September and October. I like the analogy of a car’s alignment. The slightest degree of misalignment over 10 feet is almost imperceptible, but given enough distance and speed, that same misalignment leads to the vehicle flipping over into a ditch.

Self-Care for Parents

The way you parent when your child is out of the house requires a serious examination of your distress-tolerance skills. Consider working with a therapist if you’re anxious about your student’s well-being even after you’ve done all the above. You encourage your student to take care of themselves — you need to do the same.

And remember: Most situations in which our kids find themselves are not as good or as bad as they believe them to be. Set a calm, intentional tone at the beginning of the semester with regular check-ins throughout — and enjoy the ride.

Here’s a Cheat Sheet...
  • Organization
    • Start strong with structure and back off slowly
    • Use an online calendar to organize and decrease anxiety
    • Practice incrementalism: small behaviors build big things
  • Counseling (CAPS and community professionals)
    • Investigate CAPS for an initial appointment in the first week
    • Look for local therapists before higher demand times like October
    • Have your student sign a release of information for any healthcare provider
  • Medication (Psychiatrist/PNP)
    • Schedule appointments close to the start of the semester for the most extended prescription window
    • Medication changes should happen four weeks or more before the start of the semester
    • Get that release of information signed!
  • Family Communication
    • Talk about boundaries and expectations before the semester begins
    • Establish how you will stay in touch
    • Share how you feel about their absence and choices
    • Keep vigilant about updates like grades and their social scene
    • Keep first-year surprises to a minimum
  • Address Your Stuff
    • Parenting college students requires reexamination of our needs/wants as parents
    • Get help sorting out thoughts/feelings so you don’t over-parent to get your own needs met
    • Role model taking care of yourself — your kid is watching and learning
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Rob Danzman, MS, NCC, LCMHC is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and Nationally Certified Counselor. He's author of The Insider's Guide to Parenting and holds a BA in Outdoor Leadership and an MS in Community Counseling with a focus on teen and college student anxiety, depression, substance use, and motivation issues. Rob lives, runs and mountain bikes in Bloomington, Indiana. Visit Motivate Counseling to learn more.

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