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Miserable at College: Parents Can Help Teens Adjust To College

The editorial staff at Your Teen for Parents has raised a lot of teens over the years, many of whom are now in college or beyond. Some transitioned very smoothly. Others… not so much.

If you’re one of those parents who has recently received some anxious or unhappy phone calls, texts, or emails from your college freshman, this is for you.

If you have a high school student who is planning to enroll at college in the next year or two, this is also for you!

Turns out, there are a few things we could be doing along the way that would help prepare our teens for adjusting to college freshman year.

We recently had the great fortune to pose our burning questions on this topic to a fabulous expert: Priscilla Beth Baker currently works as an academic advisor at a large university and has two college-aged sons of her own. It’s safe to say that when it comes to helping teens adjust to college life, she has seen it all!

Read on to hear what she has to say about coaching our kids to make a smoother transition to college, when we should intervene, and when we should not.

Q: Why are we hearing from so many parents that their students are having difficulty adjusting to college life?  

Baker: I think the unknown of college makes it an incredible stressor for both kids and their parents. My husband refers to it as “the black box.” You send your kid to this unknown black box and don’t have a real sense of what’s going on there, so we, as parents, look for opportunities to get a glimpse of what that looks like.

It’s those unknowns of, “What will it be like? Will I make friends? Am I academically prepared? Will I be successful? Do I need to know what I am going to do for the rest of my life right now? What should I have done before now? What could I have done differently?” I think students get caught up in those spirals of wondering and self-doubt, and that is incredibly stressful.

Q: What could help alleviate some of that stress?

Baker: The main thing that would reduce this kind of stress is for students to realize that they are NOT ALONE in these thoughts. Everyone around them is struggling to make sense of their future college careers as well. Realistic conversations with parents, older siblings, and guidance counselor-led individual and group sessions with students would help to reduce this anxiety.

Q: What can parents do to help make the college transition go more smoothly?

Baker: We can encourage them to solve problems on their own, at school, on their sports teams, in their clubs, with their siblings, in their friendships, instead of intervening on their behalf so much of the time.

We can model problem-solving and direct them to resources, but should let them gradually take the lead.

Holding them accountable is key as well. We all mess up. But the worst tactic is to cover it up or normalize it so nothing is learned from the experience. Helping them learn how to fail gracefully, as painful as that is to watch, is a GIFT.

Q: Based on your experience, you’ve said that Gen Z, the current college kids, are “the loneliest generation.” Record numbers of students are facing anxiety, depression, mental health issues, and suicide ideations. Any thoughts on the cause? Why are our kids struggling so much?

Baker: I have had so many conversations about this. I do think my generation’s over-involved, fix-it parenting style is partially to blame. And high school education has become a lot more consumer-driven in the last couple of decades rather than teacher/administrator driven which has led to a lot of grade inflation.

I also think social media is a major component. These platforms are meant to connect us but often do just the opposite. Our kids have been raised in a technological era, a veritable arms race of land mines none of us ever experienced or anticipated. We are all doing the best we can to manage that.

And, our kids are far more comfortable talking about their feelings than previous generations and do so frequently, which isn’t a bad thing; it’s just markedly different.

All of that, with the added tremendous stress of constant drills attempting to prepare them for school shootings? It is a perfect storm to create significant anxiety for anyone, in my book.

Q: If your kid is homesick or just having a hard time adjusting to college, should you visit or not visit?  

Baker: That is tricky. I think it’s okay to do one visit each semester that your child can look forward to, but if they start to depend on it, that can become an issue. I would most definitely deter parents from letting their kids come home all the time if they live close by.

They need to find their feet on campus, and to do that, they need to be present. They will never be comfortable existing outside their comfort zone if they aren’t forced to do it. It’s incredibly hard to say to your child, “No, you can’t come home,” but it may be exactly what they need to hear, and they may actually be relieved to have that permission. 

Q: A lot of times we hear that a roommate conflict is causing anxiety. If they have “the roommate from hell” who is behaving badly, but your kid doesn’t want to rat on them, what should they tolerate or try to handle on their own? What is beyond their ability to handle without intervention? 

Baker: A good or bad roommate can make or break the student experience. I have more students complaining about their roommate situations than just about anything else, frankly. Learning how to communicate effectively with a perfect stranger and assert your needs is a HUGE opportunity for growth. Don’t let things fester, but know when to pick your battles.

I tell my students, “Ask yourself if you’re going to care about this in a day, a week, a month, or a year. If you are still going to be upset about this in a year, then it’s worth confronting. If you know it won’t even matter in a day, a week, or even a month, just let it go and chalk it up to being a funny story further down the line.”

The thing is, they will actually learn more from having a bad experience with a roommate than the other way around. Not that that’s a huge consolation at the time, but there will be major personal growth from that kind of challenge.

Q: When, if ever, should parents step in?

Baker: If your child has tried to resolve issues on their own, but the roommate is completely preventing your child from getting any rest by being up all night, is destructive in any way, or is blatantly or aggressively argumentative to the point that your child feels attacked or even unsafe, that’s when you step in.

Q: What should parents say to a kid who says early on, “I just don’t think this is the right place for me?” What are some objective markers they can use to determine if it is a poor fit?

Baker: Some of this is definitely guesswork, as with so many parenting decisions. There’s certainly a case to be made for encouraging your child to stick it out to see if things change, no matter how resistant they are and how hard it is to do that. I have seen many students take significantly longer than others to “find their people” and their place on campus. Would they have fared better leaving? Maybe, but that’s just starting over again.

I do think, though, some kids who come to a really large institution find that that just isn’t their scene. They want something smaller and more intimate with more individualized attention. And vice versa, with going to a small school where they might discover that that school doesn’t have all the opportunities they were looking for.

Also, if they take a drastic turn towards a different career path and their institution does not have a strong program in that field, that would be another reason to abandon ship.

The big picture is key. But it is challenging to step back and see that when you are 18 or 19 years old. Parents, advisors, and professors are a great resource to put those things in perspective.

Q: Are there some patterns you see about when kids tend to fall apart? What are some typical triggers? 

Baker: Leading into the first round of exams is always total chaos in my office. And finals. TOTAL chaos. Students get very worked up about their performance and how to juggle so many things at once.

Q: What do you tell your students when this happens?

Baker: This is when study habits are key. I encourage students to look at the long-, mid- and short-term goals for each class. Long term goal? The final exam. Mid-term goals? These two other exams. Short-term? Mini-assignments along the way. Then they need to set aside time every day or week to meet each of those goals for each of their classes. Some students like to color-code and use virtual sticky notes as reminders. Some use excel spreadsheets, alerts on their phones, or even the old-fashioned paper calendar. The pre-planning saves time in the long-run and ensures self-accountability.

Q: What other resources should they know about?

Baker: Every campus has some version of a “Student Success Center” that offers helpful seminars on study habits, time management, etc. Make sure your child seeks those resources out! So many students who do poorly their first year are unwilling to admit that what they did in high school to study just isn’t working anymore. They need to own that and do something about it sooner rather than later.

Q: When do kids typically start to feel settled in at college?

Baker: I’d say by Thanksgiving, things settle in much more. But it’s really getting that full year of unknowns under their belts and coming back as upperclassmen that is the real shift. It seems like forever to them, but in that second year, so many things fall into place.

Q: When, if ever, should parents call the college?

Baker: If there is a major issue your child simply cannot solve on their own (and they have tried multiple avenues) or if they are not getting the services they are entitled to, like academic advising or mental health support, then you might need to step in.

What you most definitely want to avoid, though, is intervening when it comes to academic issues and then cc’ing department heads, deans, and college presidents which happens more often than you know!

Your child needs to learn how to handle those issues on his or her own. It’s a great opportunity for career growth as far as communicating with future bosses and people in positions of authority.

Jennifer Proe

Jennifer Proe is a writer and editor with Your Teen Magazine.