My College:
Student Life

How to Respond When Things Get Hard

Jennifer Sullivan


In many areas of our lives we proactively talk about failure — and sometimes even plan for it. For example, when buying a new laptop for your student to bring to school you were probably offered an extended warranty. Warranties are a safety net in case failure happens, but talking about it happening doesn’t mean it will happen.

Often we’re willing to talk about failure with our devices but view it as taboo to talk about failure with our young adults. It's important that we normalize and discuss struggle, and even failure, as something that is common and expected rather than a sign of weakness.

If your student struggles this semester in college, they (and you) are not alone! Read on to learn ways family members can respond and suggestions we can give our students to help them handle challenges they may face in college.

Why Students May Struggle

It's common for students to struggle in college especially during their freshman year. High school and college operate in two very different ways with two very different systems. The key to college success for your teen is learning their college’s system as quickly as possible.

There's often a transition period between starting college and truly understanding the way college works. This can lead to struggle and discomfort as students try to use old high school habits in their new college environment. Some lucky students are able to use their high school academic and social skills to meet the rigors of higher education with success. However, most students discover that at least some of their high school habits haven’t prepared them for the expectations of college.

Students may also struggle because of weak executive functioning skills, increased critical thinking expectations, and lack of structure in their time outside of class.

Before the Tough Times

Preparation Is Key!

I want to reassure you: talking about failure will not make it happen. Using an airplane metaphor, before takeoff the cabin crew demonstrates how to fasten your seatbelt, what to do if oxygen masks drop from above, etc. They’re not trying to scare us or even suggest that an emergency will happen. Talking about a plan for a possible event is preparation.

The same strategy applies to college. Talking about academic struggle, or even failure, will not make it happen. Creating a plan for what to do if your student struggles is being proactive.

As you and your student create a proactive plan, I suggest researching their college website and making a list of contact information for various offices. Even though your student may not need it now, this contact list will be available when and if they do. Include names of directors, email addresses and phone numbers of offices on campus such as your student’s academic advisor, Registrar, Director of Residence Life, Director of the Disability Office, and health and counseling services. Colleges and universities don’t have one point person who supports your student in the way that high school did. It’s important to familiarize yourself with the new “players” at your student’s college. This is a great activity for your student to do and then ask them to share this list with you!

During a Hard Time

Be Open About Your Own Struggles

Often I find that parents have high expectations for their new college students and unintentionally send a message of expecting perfection and success. Even if we don't use the exact words, our students feel afraid they’ll disappoint us if they admit they're struggling.

If students understand that struggle is a commonality for everyone then they won’t be as surprised when they confront challenges. I encourage you to be open and accepting of your teen’s struggles, and honest about how you’ve struggled in your own life. If you attended college, share your own missteps! Your teen is navigating new territory just as you once did.

Adults know that mistakes happen and we move forward — it’s important to share this perspective with our teens. The way we respond and react to their hard times will affect whether or not they share their next difficult time with us, too.

Encourage Reaching Out — to You (or Anyone)

Tough times in college may last for a few days or a few weeks (and sometimes longer). Students who have ways to cope with their feelings, and are able to recognize the tension, respond and move forward, are more successful than students who keep the tough times to themselves.

Encourage your teen to reach out, to you or to anyone on campus, when they are struggling. If they hesitate to share what’s really going on in their life, don’t pressure them. Instead suggest that they find someone they trust on campus to talk to. Resources include the counseling center, their academic advisor, residence hall student advisor (RA), dean of student life, disability support office staff member or a friend.

Here are conversation starters or openers to an email they can use:

  • I’m feeling stuck in class and don’t know what to do. Do you have any suggestions?
  • I don’t know what I need, but I know I’m not feeling like myself. Can I make an appointment to talk about it?
  • Things feel really hard right now. Can we talk together?
  • Everything feels overwhelming right now. Do you have any advice?

It’s also helpful to find national crisis hotlines and have your student put them into their phone in case their feelings become overwhelming. It’s better to have too many resources than not enough.

Remind Your Teen That They’ve Done Hard Things Before

When we’re in the middle of a storm, it can be hard to remember previous experiences of weathering storms successfully. Tough times feel all-consuming; stressful situations create “blinders” in our brain where we only focus on what’s around us.

Your teen may forget they are resilient. Remind them that they’ve been through hard times before. There was the athletic competition when they didn’t give up, a test or project that was difficult but they earned a B. Give them positive reminders, texts and even notes in the mail that remind them how awesome they are — and that you know they will get through this.

Jennifer Sullivan, M.S., has over 18 years experience in both higher education and K-12 schools as an academic advisor, adjunct faculty, learning specialist and former Director of Parent Programming on a college campus. Currently she is the founder of Fast Forward College Coaching and is a private executive functioning coach supporting college students with learning disabilities, autism, ADHD and anxiety and offers virtual college readiness workshops for high school seniors.

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