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Is Your College Freshman Resilient? An Expert Offers Advice

Dr. Deborah Gilboa, the resilience expert for The Doctors and a regular on TODAY and Good Morning America, recently dropped in to chat on Your Teen with Sue and Steph. Dr. G answered all of our questions about how to help our newly launched teens become resilient college freshmen. Here are some highlights from that discussion—and be sure to check out the entire episode and subscribe to the podcast! 

Q: What would you expect is happening right now with kids who started college a few weeks ago?

Dr. Gilboa: It’s getting a little bit more real. Now, it’s, “I’ve gone through 10 pairs of underwear and I have to figure out how to do my laundry, and the dining hall options are getting a little repetitive.” Now, they’re starting to get into the patterns and the structure, which can be really valuable, but the bloom is probably off the rose a little bit too.

Q: How do we know, as the parent, when to worry?

Dr. Gilboa: I want to encourage you to say to your student, “We’ve gotten into a new pattern of communication. Even if that pattern means not communicating, we’re in a new pattern of communication. I need to know from you when I should worry.” Some kids are going to be, “I’m always fine. Just leave me be.” But it’s okay to say, “That’s not reasonable. I can’t go from 60 to zero. And you’re in a new environment. And in your entire life, every time you’ve been in a new environment, there are things that I’ve checked in on. And that’s part of my job, to understand how to take your temperature.”

Q: How do we figure out how to take their mental health temperature?

Dr. Gilboa: One way is definitely to say to your child, “I need to know from you, what are the yellow flags I should be looking for? And I need a minimum requirement check-in. I need that once a week.” Or, “I need a proof of life text every morning,” or whatever. Negotiate it.

Q: Anything else we should do?

Dr. Gilboa: There are a couple of other things you can do too. You can make sure you’re cultivating the web that catches your kids when they’re struggling. So it’s not only you checking on them. I hope there are some number of people—an old youth group advisor or coach or teacher that they check in with, or somebody at the school, an older student that can just like lay eyes on them and be like, “Yeah, I saw them smile today.” And we should be really transparent about that—it’s not a hidden network of spies telling you how your child is doing. It’s saying, “If you want me to accept less communication between us kiddo, one of the things I’m going to do is ask other people who have touch points with you to check in and let me know if they feel like you’re doing okay or not.”

Q: As parents, we’ve heard we should be transitioning from the idea of being a manager to being a consultant when they’re in high school. Is there a different analogy for what we should be doing as our kids leave for college?

Dr. Gilboa: No, we’re still a consultant, but we’re going from that daily-in-the-office consultant role to a call-in once-a-week or once-a-month consultant role. Our role is changing, but it’s not disappearing. We don’t check out. There’s no victory lap in parenting, no “Peace out, see you on Instagram, hope it goes well.” It’s just not like that. The more clarity we can have about our role, the healthier that consulting relationship is likely to be. All that said, parents are also now getting into the routine of not having that child at home. We’re settling into fewer people around the dinner table and missing that kiddo’s help around the house or their perspective about something funny that we went through. It’s getting to feel more real.

Q: Let’s talk about this idea of rescuing our kids. Why is it bad for them?

Dr. Gilboa: Two percent of the time, it’s not bad for them. Two percent of the time, they are in a situation that is really above their pay grade. It’s actually dangerous and not just terribly uncomfortable. And if it’s actually dangerous, then that two percent of the time they need us to protect them and save them. The 98 percent of the time, where it’s terribly uncomfortable, but not actually dangerous, that’s where we learn. That’s where they need to learn. Sitting on our hands and watching them and having empathy for what they’re going through without offering solutions is the hardest thing we do as parents. It’s our hardest work. I really believe, even harder than advocating for them.

Q: And hopefully your kids are surviving and thriving, but it is really hard. How do you do it?

Dr. Gilboa: Remind yourself of your purpose. When you get a call or a text from your kid and you could fix it, and you want to fix it, and you’re trying to decide if you should, I would ask you: Will your child learn more if you fix it—or if you don’t? They have to be able to solve some stuff on their own. They have to know they can. And, this is your opportunity to prove that you believe in them. We tell our kids we’re proud of them, and we believe in them, and we have faith in them and they can do everything. But we often rob them of the opportunity to learn, to see that for themselves.

Q: Give us one example of what you hear is the most egregious that is in the 98%.

Dr. Gilboa: I can pick from a long list, but I’m going to say tracking kids’ location. I understand the superficial comfort of knowing where our kids are, or knowing we can know where our kids are every moment of every day. But kids are not safer when they’re tracked. And it demonstrably, in research, raises anxiety levels for parents, and it’s your life, if that’s what you choose to do. But it raises our kids’ anxiety too, and not just their feeling of nervousness in that moment, but their long-term anxiety and hyper vigilance. Basically what we’re saying is, “I’m sending you out into the big, bad world, but you can’t handle it without me in your pocket.” 

At first, it’s really hard to cut that cord. And I have tons of empathy for that, I really do. But we’ve done other things that were best for our kids and hard for us. We can do this. We’re parents. We do hard things because it’s what’s best for our kids.

Kristina Wright is the digital editor at Your Teen.

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