Recognizing the Signs That Your College Student May Be in Trouble and How You Can Help
It is a natural thing for college parents to worry about the success of their students in college. We all hope for the best, and then we worry. If your college student is a long distance away, or may have had some difficulties in high school, you may worry even more. You may be communicating with your student often (hopefully not too often!), and when you do communicate, you listen carefully to what your student is saying – both directly and between the lines – and you try to determine how she is doing.
There are some signs that you can watch and listen for that may indicate that your student is struggling with her college experience. You will need to listen and observe carefully and try to determine whether something is the result of a passing mood or phase, or something more serious. Be alert, especially, for multiple signs – and for behaviors that persist. Be careful not to jump to quick conclusions.
What signs of trouble can you watch for?
College students, for the most part, are resilient. What is a crisis today can pass in a day or two. As a college parent, you should expect to see/hear some of these behaviors at times, but notice whether you see several of the following indications that persist.
- Your student calls home a lot. Remember that “a lot” is a relative term. Some students may just want to check in each day and others may not even need to touch bases weekly. This is one reason why it is a good idea to agree, before your student leaves for college, how often you both expect to communicate. If your student calls home much more frequently than you both have planned, listen carefully to the reasons for the call. (Of course, during the first few weeks, or during an especially stressful time, you may expect extra calls as the norm.)
- Your student never calls home. If you’ve agreed on a reasonable amount of contact and your student misses calls, doesn’t answer your calls, or never calls, talk to her about it. It is possible that she is busy and happy and forgets. You may need to remind her that an occasional, quick call will reassure you. Or you may perceive that there is another reason why she doesn’t check in. (Remember, too, that a “reasonable amount of contact” is something on which you and your student need to agree. If you and she have a different notion of what is reasonable, that may explain why she is not calling.)
- Your student wants to come home a lot. Again, agreeing ahead of time on how often you expect your student to come home during the semester is helpful. Spending time on campus is one important way for students to become engaged. If your student wants to come home every weekend, she is not participating fully in the life of the college. Investigate why your student wants/needs to come home often.
- Your student never wants to come home. If your student doesn’t want to come home for breaks or holidays, discuss the reasons.
- When your student does come home for a visit – whether for a weekend or a break – she is resistant to returning to school. There may be a normal reluctance to return to school (think about how you may feel about returning to work on Monday morning or after vacation), but if there is serious resistance, ask why.
- Your student is negative about everything. It is natural for students to be unhappy and complain about things at school – the food, lack of friends, professors, amount of work, dorm rooms, roommates, or any number of other things. But if your student is negative about everything at college, dig deeper.
- Your student is not participating in any activities or groups at school. Studying is important, but college is about the total experience. If your student is not participating in anything outside of class, she may not be adjusting well.
- Your student is not going to class. This may be one of the most important factors for success. If your student is not attending, find out why.
- Your student is not completing things. Ask how assignments are going. Ask about progress on that paper or project. It is always possible that your student will tell you what you want to hear whether or not it is true, but try to find out whether normal work is getting done.
- Your student is getting low grades. Ask about grades on assignments completed. Ask about midterm assessments. Ask about end-of-semester grades. Ask your student for an honest assessment of how things are going.
- You notice a significant weight change. There is always the possibility of the infamous “freshman fifteen”, but a significant gain or loss of weight may indicate a bigger problem.
- Your student has an excessive need for extra money. Students always need more money, but if your student is constantly asking for more, ask where it is going.
- You sense that there are problems, but your student is not sharing them and is not seeking help. Your parental instinct or “gut feeling” may suggest something. Try to determine whether there are real and persistent problems and ask about them. Suggest that your student get academic help, help from residence assistants, or counseling. If your student won’t share and won’t seek help at school, there may be cause for concern.
As a parent, your gut may tell you when your student is in trouble. It is important that you follow your intuition, but also essential that you maintain a sense of perspective. College is stressful for students. They are learning independence and balance, and they may make mistakes and falter on their path. Students often ride a roller coaster of experiences. You will need to be careful not to assume the worst and overact, but you can listen carefully, watch for signs, and communicate with your student when you are concerned.
What can you do if you sense trouble?
If you’ve sensed that your student is struggling with her college experience, here are a few suggestions of things you might consider.
- Wait it out. This may be one of the most difficult things that you can do as a parent. You want to jump in and fix things. You want to make your student feel better. But sometimes, you may need to sit back and wait to see what happens. Wait to see if things get better. “Wait time” allows your student the opportunity to find solutions herself. Wait time allows your student to realize that things sometimes improve when given time.
- Open a discussion with your student. Talk to your student about what you perceive and why you are worried. Be specific in letting her know what has caused your concern. Your student may be able to reassure you or explain the behavior that worries you. Just having the discussion may be all that your student needs to let her know that you noticed and are there to support her.
- Encourage your student to stay on campus and work through the issue. Staying on campus and dealing with issues may be better than coming home and trying to escape from problems. Encourage your student to make connections and take advantage of the support available at school.
- Help your student identify the root of the problem. Your student may not understand why she is having a difficult time. Helping your student identify the root of the problem is the first step toward making things better. Is your student overwhelmed because she needs help with time management? Is her course load too heavy? Are her classes too difficult? Is she having difficulty communicating with a roommate? Being able to name the problem will help her to identify a potential solution.
- Help your student create an action plan. Once your student identifies the root of the problem, potential solutions may seem obvious. Does she need to visit the tutoring center? Get a planner to write down all assignments and appointments? Consult with her RA to work on roommate issues? Having a one, two, or three step action plan will put your student in control.
- Suggest campus support. Most schools have many forms of support for students. For academic concerns, your student might turn to her academic advisor, her instructors, a tutoring or writing center, other students in the class or upper students. For social issues there are resident assistants, orientation leaders, or counseling centers. Help your student think about other people on campus who can help and support her.
- Visit your student on campus. While you want to encourage your student to stay on campus rather than come home, both you and your student may feel that you need to touch bases with each other in person. Offer to come to campus for a visit rather than have your student come home. This will also allow your student to introduce you to her friends, (to clean her room!), and to show you around her world.
- If you feel that your student’s problem is serious or more than she can handle and you are worried about her health or safety, call someone on campus. Your call may be to an advisor, a dean, a resident director. If you need to call someone at the college, keep FERPA regulations in mind. The college staff member may not be able to discuss specifics with you, but you can at least alert someone to check on your student.
- Your student may need a break. Sometimes, in spite of everyone’s best efforts – student, parents, college – the current difficulties may not be able to be overcome. Your student may need a break from school to work on issues, find balance, search for a sense of purpose, or perhaps just mature a bit. You may need to talk to your student about whether she should withdraw from school or take a leave of absence for a few weeks, a semester or a year. Talk about why this plan might make sense and what your student will do if she isn’t at school. For some students, a break may provide the opportunity to refocus and then return to school ready to succeed.
It is difficult for a parent to see a child of any age in difficulty, trouble, or pain. Most college students will hit some rough patches at various points during their college career. Most students will weather the difficult times and bounce back. Some students’ difficulties will be more serious and they will need their parents’ help and guidance to get through. As parents, we must remember that our students are likely to be stronger, more aware, and more competent at the end of a difficult time.