First Weeks of College: Parent Tips
The first few weeks of college can feel overwhelming. Students may be learning to live with roommates, handling finances, and dealing with new academic demands. They’re meeting people from different cultures with different beliefs and backgrounds; learning about school bureaucracy, the financial aid office, and the registrar; and meeting professors and managing college-level classes. It’s a lot.
As they move through these changes, students learn how to respond to challenges, do their own research, and advocate for themselves. They figure out how to find the social and emotional support they need from the campus community, friends, and family. It can be bumpy, but they get there. And if they continue to struggle significantly, you can help them find the support they need (more on that below).
Some Stressors in the Beginning of College
Most students’ initial concerns are about forming friendships. When new students look around, they may get the impression that everyone else is self-confident, socially successful, and finding their place. In reality, everyone has similar concerns about friendships and feeling lonely, but people are often reluctant to talk about it.
Many students also miss home, so don’t be surprised if you get a teary phone call (or seven). Conversely, you might not hear from your student much, or at all, as they navigate new routines. They’re busy handling a slew of details, and that’s also normal. It can be a sign they’re adjusting.
Within a couple of weeks, however, some regular patterns usually start to set in—walking the same route to classes or eating at the same time with certain people—and making connections becomes easier for your student.
Still, sometimes those first friendships don’t happen as quickly as they would like. You can let them know that meaningful, new relationships don’t develop overnight. Remind them that some of their dearest friendships took years to develop, and that adjusting to all the change takes time.
Discuss ideas for connecting, such as inviting others to join them for a meal, or getting involved in campus activities. Help them understand that all first-years are new to campus life.
Learning to Let Them Learn
Although it’s tempting to want to solve their problems or try to fix their unhappiness, the best thing parents and caregivers can do is listen. When speaking, you can use empathetic responses like “that sounds really hard” or “it must be really challenging.”
You can also point out things that seem to be going well for your student: “It sounds like you got the classes you wanted” or “It sounds like you and your roommate are creating a great connection.”
Gently encourage your student to get involved in clubs, intramural sports, or other groups that might interest them. Getting involved is one of the best ways students will adjust, and you’re supporting them in learning that they can handle these challenges on their own. Learning how to solve problems and use coping skills develops self-efficacy (believing in your own abilities), a critical skill they’ll need as an adult.
How Much Contact Should You Have with Your Child?
Follow your student’s lead on how much they want to phone and text you, or respond to you attempting to connect with them. Sometimes too much contact from home can interfere with their adjustment, but ignoring them when they reach out isn’t helpful either. Let them set the pace.
While students are settling in, don’t underestimate the restorative qualities of a care package from home. They’ll appreciate notes, pictures, and home-baked treats they can share with dorm mates.
How to Know Whether Your Child Needs Mental Health Support
No one expects the transition to a new living, social, or academic environment to be easy, and most of the challenges and struggles first-year students experience don’t need professional attention. Usually, all a student needs is a caring, compassionate support system and some time to navigate the ups and downs of starting college.
And it’s important to tune in to your own anxieties as a caregiver to try to separate your worries from what your student is actually experiencing.
But if the transition is so difficult that it’s getting in the way of your student settling in or is causing some of the symptoms below, it’s important for them to be connected to mental health care.
Work on having empathetic conversations and ask gentle questions to try to uncover what might be going on. That will help you determine whether it’s an issue that requires intervention. Video conversations or FaceTiming lets you see your student and evaluate their appearance, mood, and body language. It may be that your student needs mental health support from a mental health professional.
Signs Your Child May Need Mental Health Support
You may not be able to notice many of these from afar, but pay attention to what your student tells you and any signs that they:
- Frequently or constantly feel sad, empty, hopeless, frustrated, irritable, or pessimistic.
- Have big changes in their appetite, such as eating too little or too much.
- Have trouble sleeping or are sleeping much more than normal.
- Feel tired or low on energy all the time.
- Are less interested in activities they usually enjoy.
- Have trouble concentrating or remembering things.
- Feel guilty, worthless, or like they’re not enough.
- Are having panic attacks.
- Feel overwhelmed and unable to tackle new challenges or seek help.
- Stop taking care of themself, including skipping showers, not brushing their teeth, or avoiding other personal hygiene.
- Are using alcohol or drugs to deal with difficult feelings or situations.
- Prefer not to socialize.
- Are having thoughts of death or suicide.
Where to Get Immediate Help for Your Child
If you believe your student might be at immediate risk of harming themself or someone else:
- Reach out to campus police and let them know this is a mental health concern, so that if the school has a coordinated response that involves counseling, that support will be activated.
- Reach out to their resident adviser, who can stay with the student and might know how to activate an emergency response.
- If possible, stay on the line with your student and encourage them to: