Dear Parent Coach,
Our daughter is a college freshman at an Eastern university. She called us this week (unusual!) saying she is under a lot of stress with her classes. She admits she is staying up too late and isn’t eating well. She seems to manage having fun, but doesn’t have the same drive to handle her studies. She’s questioning whether or not she’s cut out to be in college, or if this is the right college for her. We aren’t ready to give in and say come home, but we feel frustrated and worried. How can we help her?
Signed, Puzzled Parents
Dear Puzzled Parents,
This is a typical slump time for all college students, especially freshmen. The pleasant memories of the December holidays and relaxing times with family and high school friends are still fresh.
This makes it especially difficult to face a new semester with a monumental work load looming. Getting used to a new set of unpredictable professors, perhaps too many 8 a.m. classes — and freezing weather in her college town — make it tough to get back into the daily grind. It all feels like too much.
When college students feel this overwhelmed, which is very normal, they call home for that familiar parental voice that gives immediate comfort and confidence. There also may be that slight hope that parents will “fix” the problem, as they did so often when their student lived at home.
Unfortunately, parents don’t hear as often from their student to report when things are going well, when they’re feeling successful about work and grades, and they’re having a good time with friends.
The freshman year is perhaps the most challenging in a college career, and the learning curve is high. A beginning student is not only trying to get accustomed to the unfamiliar academic schedule, but also managing daily life details that include doing laundry, choosing healthy food, getting adequate sleep and arriving places on time.
Just running out of shampoo or Tide right when they need it (but don’t have time to go get it), or having their printer break down, can throw freshmen over the edge. Parents used to help out with these daily life details, but now it falls on the student to deal with them alone.
At the same time, the social scene brings its own demands. Making and maintaining new friendships, getting along with roommates, joining clubs, sorority and fraternity involvements and possibly a first-time serious relationship all take emotional energy, as well as time away from studies. Balance is required.
This is also the time of year when many students, living in close quarters with roommates in dorms and apartments, get sick for the first time away from home. This now requires self-diagnosis and care (where’s Mom?), perhaps a trip to the health center for meds, and possibly means missing classes. Getting further behind with reading assignments and writing papers guarantees added stress.
College students, through trial and error, do eventually learn to prioritize, organize, eliminate, rearrange, plan ahead, say “no,” buckle down, concentrate, find the library, start writing the paper before the night before it’s due, start eating more dining hall veggies and less late-night pizza, finally admit they need to get to the health center when sick, and start buying the largest bottle of shampoo when at the store.
These are all good things for students to learn, but they won’t learn them if they give up and come home when things get tough. Facing challenges head on, grappling with solutions and accepting the lessons learned through mistakes are the freshman’s task of growth and maturing.
Your daughter is experiencing most of the same feelings that her fellow freshmen are. She needs to hear that you care about her, believe in her abilities and empathize with her situation.
By doing this, you will give her the strength and confidence to look for her own solutions in the stressful areas she’s grappling with. By sticking it out, she’ll learn some of the most important lessons a college education has to offer.
1. Stay calm and don’t overreact — ask questions and admit that this sounds hard right now.
2. Listen, listen, listen. Refrain from quickly finding solutions and fixing all of your daughter’s problems.
3. Encourage your daughter to consider how she might reorganize and manage her time.
4. Express confidence in her ability to handle her challenges. “I know you can do it!”
5. Call or text occasionally to assure her you’re thinking about her and to offer support.
6. Send a care package with nutritious snacks, a Starbucks card, some warm socks and hot chocolate, and a box of her favorite cereal. Fill the package with candy kisses and encouraging notes from the family.