Parents far and wide are preparing to launch their recent high-school grads into the next stage of their lives: college! Whether you send your student across the country or town, this milestone can bring various challenges and excitement about setting them off on their own.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how starting college is different now than when I was a teen. Social media didn’t exist, there was no pandemic, gas was $1.25 a gallon, and my phone was connected to a wall. Despite this quaint existence, transitioning to college still threw me for a loop. I can only imagine how challenging this shift is for teens today.
The number one question I hear from parents of college students is, “How do I know when they need help?”. The good news is that identifying depression or anxiety in college students is not as mysterious as we often think it is. Here are a few key things to look out for:
- Talk about feeling overwhelmed or unable to keep up
- Distorted or unrealistic self-image or expectations
- Sudden changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Loss of interest in once-loved activities
- Outbursts of frustration or sadness
- Falling grades
- Loss of participation in social activities
- Self-injury or suicidal thoughts
Naturally, depression will not look the same for all students. However, these can serve as helpful warning signs that your child may need support. The first thing for any concerned parent to remember is to acknowledge these changes when you see them. So many parents I have spoken with have shared their fears about addressing concerning behavior. They worry they will “make things worse” or push their child further away.
My response: it’s always better to be honest about what you see and how it makes you feel. Refusing to acknowledge the warning signs of depression never helps and can actually aggravate its underlying causes. Your child might not be ready to talk with you about what they are going through. But, they might be more willing to talk with someone else, and sharing your concerns can move that process forward. Regardless of the outcome, your child will know that you care. More importantly, it will remind them that they are not invisible.
With this in mind, however, I think the most important feedback I would offer to parents who are worried about the inevitable stress of college would be to start talking about depression before the warning signs appear. Make it clear that you want to stay in touch, and establish a routine of “checking in,” even if things are going well, and set clear expectations about when these check-ins will take place. Let your child know that you are worried about the stress of college and that you will be there for them if (and more likely when) they need it.
Finally, make sure your child knows that it is okay to struggle,and to not always know all the answers. One of the most common underlying causes of depression in college students is unrealistic expectations that they place on themselves. Let them know that some stress is a natural part of the college experience, regardless of what their phone looks like.