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Checking up on Your Teen's Adjustment to College

by Anita Gurian, PhD

Did your teenager start college this year? You’ve probably been keeping close tabs on the courses your children are taking, how they’re managing the assignments, when vacations are scheduled, and the list goes on. For many young people, the transition to college is relatively smooth and they learn to handle their new lives well. For some, however, the need to manage new schedules, new friendships, new responsibilities, and intense study can be overwhelming.

After the first months of college, it's a good idea for parents to check on how their teenagers are handling their new lives. Although the role of parents changes as children mature and they're no longer involved in their children's daily lives, they still need to be tuned in to how their children adjust to changes and to new situations. "College is a time when young adults try out new things, so parents shouldn't overreact to every change in their child, but be aware of drastic change.....listen and make yourself available to talk," says psychiatrist Edward Poa, of the Menninger clinic, Baylor College of Medicine.

Studies show that students who have difficulty adjusting to the challenges of life away from home are vulnerable to mental health problems. Recent surveys indicate that up to 50% of college students report that they have experienced episodes, such as depression, during which they have been unable to function. Substance abuse, eating disorders, and abusive relationships are fairly common among college students. Many students, eager to show their independence, don't report these problems, but they affect academic performance and social relationships. Following are some warning signs that a student may be experiencing stress:

  • Sudden changes in habits or mood. For example: regular phone calls or e-mails suddenly stop or, on the other hand, become very frequent; student is suddenly unreachable and not answering messages.
  • Declining grades or dropping classes may suggest that the student is not attending to academic demands.
  • Requests for more money than usual may suggest that the student is going out very often or using alcohol or drugs.
  • Job loss may mean the student is overscheduled or preoccupied with other matters.
  • If the child is asleep or just waking up when called, she/she could be depressed or sleeping off the effects of too much partying, drugs or alcohol.

If problems persist for more than two weeks to a month, professional help is probably warranted. Consult with the college if it has counseling services or make other arrangements.

Note: Some of the material in this story is based on a news release of the Menninger Clinic.