The start of college is one of the most stressful times in a family’s life, said Dr. Gene Beresin, a pediatric psychiatrist and executive director of Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Virtually overnight, moms and dads have to learn to parent in a different way, or risk a ruptured relationship. Kids, meanwhile, are truly away for the first time, with no curfew, limited privacy, new social situations to navigate, and a wider range of dangers and risks.
A full 50 percent of college students face a mental health problem, such as anxiety, depression, or substance abuse, Beresin said. The stress of so many new challenges at once can exacerbate any existing learning or mental health problems the young person already has, he said, and can trigger new problems in others.
The biggest challenge is the unknown, said Catherine Bell, a psychologist with the college mental health program at McLean Hospital in Belmont. New students are shifting from the structured world of high school, where they had to be in class from early morning until afternoon, to the unstructured schedule of college, where they might have just 90 minutes of class in a day. And their parents aren’t there anymore to manage their lives or “pick up whatever they drop emotionally,” Bell said.
So what can be done to cope with all this stress? Planning ahead can help. If you know your child is vulnerable to problems like anxiety or depression, you can seek out campus resources ahead of a crisis, getting the names and contact for school psychologists or a nearby professional, Beresin said.
Parents should also set up some regular time to talk with their children, perhaps once a week. “Texting is not talking,” Beresin noted, and the goal should be a discussion among adults. “Don’t lecture or grill,” he advised. Instead, “ask them for their opinions of things: What’s interesting to you about a class?”
Bell said the best advice she can offer is to simply accept that anxiety is part of the experience. “Treating it as a disaster is the thing that exacerbates the problem,” Bell said. “[College] doesn’t have to be one big success.”
The good news, said Beresin, who has sent his own four kids off to college: The vast majority do just fine in the end.
This is the first of two parts on adjusting to the start of a new school year. Next week: what back-to-school means for families with kids still at home.