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College Students and Mental Health: Part 3, What Parents Can Do

Rob Danzman, MS, NCC, LCMHC

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This is the final post in a three-part series in which I share my insights into college students’ behavioral health. In Part 1, I talk about what stressors students face. In Part 2, I examine coping skills students use to get through, and in Part 3, I share what parents can do to help.

Though we seem to finally be on the backside of COVID, there’s a lot of fallout from online semesters and limited contact with friends to deal with. College students are having a hard time peering into the future far enough to make decisions and feel good about their classes, internships or even upcoming graduation.

Parents are having their own struggles. Worrying about their college kids getting through the current semester seems to be a big focus. For those with juniors or seniors, the concerns are around interviews, internships and first jobs. With so many stressors, parents need some guidance.

What Can Parents Do?

Let’s start by acknowledging it’s always hard to be far away from kids at school. You’re hundreds of miles away and your son or daughter is struggling. You don’t want to act like a snowplow parent but also can’t stand to see them get so stuck. Watching anyone flail or fail is hard; watching our kids fizzle-out is downright painful.

Below I’ve outlined specific suggestions for parents to deal with some common challenges. College students may not be enthusiastic about some of these but our job as the adults in the room is to look at the big picture and focus on what’s effective, not just what’s convenient or feels good.

When to Act

Parents need to do a cost-benefit analysis when deciding if and how to help. How much value will my son/daughter get out of what I’m about to do and what are the associated costs?

Some issues necessitate parents jumping in to the point where the situation requires an adult to essentially take over decision making. I have three categories of when the benefits of intervening far outweigh the costs and when parents absolutely should take control.

  1. Safety: There is an imminent safety risk (e.g. actively suicidal — they have a plan, means and intention).
  2. Legal: They are about to or recently made choices with long-term negative consequences (e.g. engaging in a felony which could make employment nearly impossible).
  3. Health: They have such debilitating medical/mental health struggles that getting help is impossible on their own.

Short of those, parents need to hang out on the sidelines and wait till their student asks for help. My parenting cost-benefit analysis is still relevant (do the benefits of me helping outweigh the costs such as a decrease in grit), but we’ll see that outside of the three serious categories listed above, the benefits of intervening don’t provide a net gain.

Parenting Without Saving

Next, let’s consider looking at parenting from an effectiveness perspective. Basically, apply your energy (or time, money, etc.) more effectively.

Instead of asking “How’s your programming class going?” consider saying, “You don’t talk about your programming class anymore.” Then add, “What are some things keeping you from being more successful in that class?”

Bam! They’ll pause for a second but be so much more willing to talk from that angle.

When asked how things are going, EVERY student will use the "F" word… "fine." Don’t bother. Let’s skip ahead. We already know things are very not fine. So let’s figure out specifically what’s in the way. Hint: it’s almost always related somehow to motivation.

Improve That Communication

Now that we’re thinking about how to be more effective, we’ll try focusing on the obstacles (anxiety, depression, lack of information/data, etc.) and the measurable outcomes (grades, GPA) rather than on the tantalizing but hard to control and measure undesirable behaviors (e.g. waking up in the morning).

When parents dial up their curiosity (“What’s keeping my college kiddo from getting stuff done?”) and dial down the judgment (It sounds like you’re really struggling right now vs. “Wow, you’re so lazy!”) parents move towards greater understanding and improved outcomes. There is some interesting (and maybe not all that surprising) research that shame and blame make procrastination worse.

What else can we talk about since we’re on the topic of communication? How about meaning? How about purpose? Without it, life is like floating on a raft in the middle of the ocean with no current, no wind, no sails and no rudder. Purpose is like a compass heading which keeps us in the right direction.

Parents generally have a strong compass heading, and we take it for granted as if this is something we’re born with (and that all college students should have). But we didn’t always. We forget it takes time to cultivate that alchemy of purpose, ability and grit. College kids often struggle in these early adult years of finding it.

Parents have an opportunity, though, to provide nurturing and some gentle nudging to help their kids find their purpose, even if it’s more short-term stuff. Purpose doesn’t have to be some existential life mission saving the whales or curing cancer. No need to make a dent in the universe right now. It might be something more proportional to young adult-ness. Relationships can provide purpose. Getting into grad school or landing that job from the internship could be something that provides a compass heading.

Ask your kids what matters to them. Start that dialogue about meaning, purpose and values. Tell your story of struggling to find it and how it evolved over time. This validates to them that they don’t need to have it all figured out right now. It also communicates to them they can confide in you and you won’t start monologuing again.

Deal With Your Own Stuff

Many parents I work with have the best intentions and will stop at nothing to help their college student succeed. But so often, they aren’t aware of how their own past, their own insecurities, their own challenges are being projected onto their kids.

Before you push your kids too hard, consider why you’re parenting the way you are. Does it come from sincere good intentions or could you have a lack of faith in others’ abilities to get important things done? This is a touchy subject and I tread lightly with parents when talking about this since some just aren’t ready for such self-examination. Parenting is always conducted through the prism of the past, so ask yourself if what you’re about to say to your son/daughter is for their benefit or yours.

Finally, parents can practice patience. It took years for your college kiddo to feel so unmotivated, to feel anxious, to feel unloved. It will take years to find that spark again and build a more satisfying life.

Just as I suggest to the students with whom I work, take a deep breath (or two or three) and think about the big picture. Whatever struggle we’re facing right now we can overcome.

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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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