You and your freshman have navigated the application process and registration, and their college journey has begun. In the flurry of activity that comes with starting college, one thing that often can be overlooked is their mental health.
Students and parents imagine the first year is filled with new and fun experiences, and while that exists, college also brings new stressors that can be challenging to manage. So how do you as a parent help support your freshman’s mental health?
Below are seven ways that can make a difference.
- Stay connected. It’s important you stay connected and let them know you are there as a support system. Perhaps that’s through a weekly phone call or sending texts to check in.
- Inquire about their feelings. It’s easy to ask “how are your classes going?”, but don’t neglect to inquire about how they are feeling. Often times when people are stressed or feel any unpleasant emotion, they pull away and withdraw. Invite them to share. Questions such as, “It sounds like you have a lot going on. How are you feeling?” can go a long way.
- Listen. It’s tempting to go into problem-solving mode or offer a quick reassurance, yet simply listening is a gift. We, as people, often believe we are listening when in actuality we are thinking about our response, and in doing so, we miss what the speaker is saying and the emotional content beneath which can lead them to not feel understood and shut down. Resist the urge to quickly respond. Stay silent and listen with the goal of understanding first versus “fixing”.
- Validate and empathize. Your college student’s stressors may not seem like that big of a deal to you, and it’s tempting to respond with a “you shouldn’t feel like that.” The reality is, they do. Whether they “should” or “shouldn’t”, their feelings are valid and they are experiencing them. Instead, restate their words back to them to demonstrate that you were listening. For example, “It sounds like you are overwhelmed by the coursework and feel like you are failing.” Follow it up with empathy. “That sounds really stressful. I can understand that it’s a lot to juggle.”
- Promote effective coping skills. Before you jump into giving advice or offering a solution, get a bit more curious. People are far more likely to do something they have thought of themselves versus doing something they were told to do. Help develop their coping skills by asking open-ended questions such as, “What has worked in the past?” “What is one step you think you can take that could be helpful?” or “What could be another way of looking at this?”. You can then offer solutions that they may not have identified.
- Encourage self-care. When any of us are stressed, self-care can go out the window, and this is true for college students. Remind them to establish good sleeping habits, exercise, take time to unwind, and engage in activities that nourish their body, mind, and spirit.
- Connect with the counseling center. Most colleges have a wide variety of services to support students. One is mental health counseling. Familiarize yourself with what services the college offers and encourage your freshman to connect with those services. College counseling centers can provide short-term therapy for students or connect them with community mental health services. The counseling center can be a great resource and support throughout their college journey.