My College:
Wellness

How This Mother Learned About Anxiety from Her Son

Deborah Porter


I’ll never forget the first time I got the call: “Mom, I had an anxiety attack!”

I say first time because, although they didn’t come often, there would be other calls and I’m sure my initial response was not particularly helpful.

It was something like, “What do you mean you had an anxiety attack? We all get anxious from time to time. Don’t be late for class.”

I didn’t know what I didn’t know about anxiety disorders because it wasn’t something I suffered with. Sure, I get anxious before having to speak in front of a crowd or on my way to the dentist. But that’s not what my son was trying to tell me.

What he was telling me is that he suffers from a disorder where this type of anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. His symptoms can interfere with daily activities such as job, school and relationships.

Anxiety disorders are not one size fits all.

And as my son Clif has taught me, everyone responds differently when anxiety hits.

Over the years, he’s also taught me a lot about triggers, symptoms and responses. He’s given me permission to share some of that in this piece. Not because it was the first thing on our 2021 agenda but, after a few conversations (and text messages), we agreed that it would help parents of college students to respond better and help their student to soar!

According to a new report by the SERU (Student Experience in the Research University) Consortium cited in a recent Inside Higher Ed article, “About one-third of undergraduate, graduate and professional school students screened during the summer were found to have depression or anxiety, or both, which is a higher rate than seen in years past."

In light of this statistic, I asked Clif a few questions to start our dialogue on the issue.

Please note: This cannot be considered medical advice or take the place of an appointment with your medical provider. It is, however, a peek into how our family is managing the impact that anxiety and anxiety disorders can have.

Question #1:

What’s a helpful tip for battling the isolation that anxiety can cause?

Clif's response:

For me the best way to deal with isolation is finding a comfortable environment. Sometimes isolation is that comforting environment, especially in those situations when other people are what’s triggering the anxiety.

But in other cases, when my inclination to isolate is enabling my anxiety, it’s been important for me to know the environments that involve people that make me comfortable. My auntie's house is like that for me. She is helpful when I ask for help, but otherwise she doesn’t pry or try to fix things for me. She just lets me chill and she does the same.

Question #2:

How should parents of college students who suffer from anxiety show up for them? Do’s and Don’ts would be helpful here.

Clif's response:

I’d say "Do" check in on your child in as normal a way as possible. Ask them how they’re doing, what they’ve been up to, how their friends are, etc.

The flip side of that: "Don’t" press them about their anxiety every time you speak. Make it clear you care and are concerned about their mental health, but doing so after it’s already been clearly communicated can do more harm than good. Let them know you're there for them, then treat them normally. It’ll make them much more comfortable to come to you if and when they need to and are ready to get professional help.

Another "Do" would be take mental notes of symptoms you notice. In the fog of anxiety sometimes it’s difficult to tell, especially early on, what your own symptoms are. Parents often ask "Have you eaten anything today?" If routinely their answer is no, make note of that. When they visit home, give them food to take with them.

But again, it’s up to that person to decide they are ready for help. Once they’ve made that decision, and if they're having trouble identifying what their anxiety looks like, "Do" offer your knowledge as a parent in non-intrusive ways.

"Do" ask them! Ask your kid (once or twice so as to not be repetitive) in what ways you can be supportive! They may not have an answer at first and that may be related to their comfort level with you. For me, when you backed off a bit was when I felt I was able to come to you with what would be helpful. It made me feel like you were ready to learn from what I experienced.

The biggest "Don’t" is do not try and fix your child. I can imagine how difficult that would be when you see them hurting, but in the long run it's better that they are comfortable enough with you to tell you when something is wrong than for them to be desensitized by the constant lectures about their mental health. Again, this is what works for me. Every person is different.

Question #3:

Any final thoughts?

Clif's Response:

The disclaimer is that everyone’s experience with anxiety is different and different things work for different folks. I’m only discussing my personal experience. Isolation can be good and/or bad. For me, it depends on the moment.

Also, remember to treat your child like they are your child, but also like they are a person — not just a person with an anxiety disorder.

As a mom, I encourage any parent who's concerned about a mental health issue their child may be experiencing to find out what services are available on campus.

This is a great question to ask during college tours, especially if you know this is an area of need for your child. If your child is already seeing a medical provider for anxiety, make sure a few virtual appointments are set and on the books before they leave home for campus.

Here are 5 tips to support you, if you get a phone call similar to the one I received:

  1. Listen well. Not just to what they’re saying but also for what they’re not saying and the way they are communicating. Is your normally upbeat, high energy child suddenly sounding defeated, depressed or alone? As Clif mentioned, notice if they are eating or sleeping well. We know college students have a very different diet and sleep schedule than we do, but have they gone a day or two without much of either?
  2. Ask them. Don’t avoid the topic but at the same time don’t allow it to be the sole topic of conversation on each and every call. Communicate your love for them without attachment to grades or accomplishments.
  3. Offer support. Many times as parents, we think we know what they need and there are times that’s true. However, anxiety presents differently in everyone who lives with it. Be available and supportive for what they need.
  4. Get support. For you and them. Seek out a support group in your area (or virtually) for parents of children with anxiety. Additionally, encourage your child to talk with someone to help them with the self-talk that is likely going on. There are proven techniques that may help your child.
  5. Trust your maternal or paternal instincts. As moms and dads, there are times we instinctually know things about our children. Simply hearing their voice or seeing their facial expression before a word is spoken reveals something. Call your medical provider when you feel it's necessary.


Photos courtesy of the author.

Deborah Porter is a Home/Life Balance Coach for dedicated moms who need home management systems and a routine self-care regimen that goes beyond a good mani/pedi. She believes that the woman you were before having kids still matters. Deborah is a regular contributor to Virginia This Morning on WTVR. She and her husband have three adult children. Download her free ebook, "7 Habits of Confident Moms," at bit.ly/confidentmomebook or email her, [email protected]

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